Tuesday 1 August 2000

Chanson:The Space in Between

Barb Jungr

In her sleevenotes to this album, Barb Jungr writes:

“I include the Harburg and the Porter because they set the scene for a Paris which probably only ever existed in the imagination, but is no less real for that.”

This conviction, that a Paris of the imagination is in its own way as vivid and real as the Paris that you’ll find in northern France, underpins the whole of this magical album and gives it its power.

The album is a journey through just such a Paris of the imagination, a city of atmospheric haunts and perpetual fallings in and out of love. The selection is eclectic: the aforementioned Yip Harburg and Cole Porter; new translations of songs by Jacques Brel, Jacques Prevert and Leo Ferre; and material of a more contemporary origin. Jungr has an impressive reputation as an interpreter of cabaret, a tradition whose popularity seems only to grow with each passing year. But the title of Chanson suggests that the French tradition Jungr works with here deserves to be considered as an entity distinct from cabaret.

What, precisely, distinguishes chanson from cabaret? We can turn to Jungr for a clue. Earlier this year, she wrote an article for The Singer magazine in which she asked the great HK Gruber why he termed himself a ‘chansonnier’ rather than a cabaret singer. Gruber’s answer:

“Because what I sing is not always funny, and cabaret suggests being funny. In Vienna or Berlin, a cabaret number suggests being able to make the audience laugh, and of course the cabaret is a place in which bands and music play, but most of all we expect someone who tells jokes and stories with political subjects, taking the mask off the heroes which then are demystified so they are not heroes anymore. That is the function of cabaret.”

So beyond the French subject matter and setting, the chanson is distinct from cabaret because the cabaret singer has a remit to entertain at the level of humour, and the chansonnier does not. More specifically, whereas the cabaret singer has a duty to authenticity (revealing the true colours of the people and institutions that are its subject matter), the chansonnier has a duty to sincerity. Most of the songs on Chanson would be impossible to sing if they were treated merely as a role to be played and then discarded. These songs beg to be made the singer’s own; one cannot imagine them being sung by somebody who had not loved and lost with the best of them.

Jungr’s task, then, is no easy one. The transmission of sincerity through music is one of the most intangible and difficult challenges a singer can undertake. Jungr, it must be said, rises to the occasion magnificently. Her voice shifts gear from song to song and within each song to bring these diverse pieces to life, but the sincerity behind the voice is palpable and constant. A haunting version of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas sets the scene for her Paris of the imagination, beginning the album, appropriately enough, at the end of a love affair. Already this Paris is no blank slate, but awash with memories. The music shifts into the present tense with Robb Johnson’s song Sunday Morning St Denis, a showcase for Jungr’s skilled band of accompanists. The Eastern European flavour of this song, in an arrangement by Kim Burton, is reminiscent of Greg Cohen’s more exotic arrangements for Tom Waits. As Jungr’s voice weaves through the accordion and double bass like the River Seine, Paris really comes to life in this song - it carves out a little self-contained pocket of the city as its own.

Much of the album is spent flitting between the past and present tense. In the past tense, we have Ferre’s Quartier Latin (a song about revisiting memory-soaked settings) and Brel’s Marieke (a song about the accumulated memories of travelling to and fro to visit a loved one). Porter’s I Love Paris straddles the past and present, encompassing the recurring seasons of the year. In the present tense we have Brel’s Les Marquises (the immediate prospect of death) and most memorably, a version of the defiant Edith Piaf classic Cri du Coeur, whose enthusiasm is infectious.

The centrepiece of Chanson: The Space In Between, and the greatest vehicle for the both the versatility of Jungr’s voice and the sincerity of Jungr’s soul, is her heart-stopping rendition of Brel’s La Chanson des Vieux Amants. Brel’s depiction of undying devotion in the midst of spiritual wilderness hinges on a mood that is very difficult (not to say draining) to pin down, and credit is due here to Des de Moor, for his masterful new translation of the song. But it is Jungr who has the job of pulling it off, and pull it off she does. The album is worth owning for this song alone.

After La Chanson des Vieux Amants, Jungr can go no further inward into the heart of her imaginary Paris; Brel’s song really is the nadir of anguish. So in the remaining third of the album she strikes outward, on a note of conciliation and forward-looking. If I have a problem with the album as a whole, it is that two of these more upbeat songs, namely Elvis Costello’s New Amsterdam and Jungr’s own composition The Space In Between, feel somewhat out of place here. They seem to dissipate the web of complementary moods and settings that the album builds up beforehand.

This aside, Jungr’s album is a wonderful thing. Its greatest achievement is to take a collection of songs, mainly love songs, and deliver them living and breathing into the 21st century. A great love song has a life all of its own - as we grow older and grapple with our own changing concerns, the love song waits in the wings, eternally young. It takes custodians such as Barb Jungr to breathe life back into the love song, to remind us that it never really went away.


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