Wednesday 25 July 2018

Concert and CD Review: Float Like a Butterfly: The Songs of Sting (Barb Jungr and John McDaniel) (Kristalyn Records, 2018)

"You consider me the young apprentice," sings Barb Jungr, surveying the crowd with her singular mixture of warmth and challenge as she takes to the stage at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho. Immediately, we're drawn into the story. Accompanying Jungr is John McDaniel, the brilliant pianist, singer and arranger with whom Jungr collaborated three years ago on Come Together, a collection of Beatles songs. The opener here is "Wrapped Around Your Finger" by Police, that memorable evocation of master/servant dynamics in a love relationship, which serves as the entry point to the the duo's latest venture: a programme of songs by Sting.

Jungr and McDaniel debuted this material in live performances last year, and the recent Soho show served as a launch for the album of the songs, Float Like a Butterfly, which is available now. It was, to be sure, a revelatory evening. Jungr and McDaniel have been thorough and judicious in their research and selection of material, combining songs from the range of Sting's output - Police work, solo stuff, soundtracks, collaborations and his recent musical The Last Ship - to create a marvellously varied yet cohesive whole.

In a way, taking on Sting songs might be viewed as a riskier project for the duo, since, while the greatness of the Beatles (or Jungr's other frequent touchstones, Dylan and Cohen) is seldom disputed, views on Sting tend to be much more mixed. Still hugely popular, he is nonetheless an artist whose persona has often met with kneejerk derision (especially in the British press); it doesn't take much online searching to find commentators sniping about him as "one of the most narcissistic performers in pop." Jungr alludes to this perspective a little bit in her witty intro, but her and McDaniel's response is to place the focus firmly on Sting's terrific, wide-ranging body of work which they illuminate in striking and sometimes surprising ways, digging deeply into its personal, political and mythological resonances.

Stripping the songs back to piano and voice (with occasional harmonica blasts) the pair have developed fantastic, crisp arrangements that allow the images and melodies to emerge freshly. As such, lyrics that you'd hardly noticed in the original versions are suddenly revealed as the soul of a song, whether it's the take-down of conventional notions of masculinity in the Quentin Crisp portrait "Englishman in New York" ("Takes more than combat gear to make a man/Takes more than a license for a gun"); the opening salvo of "Russians" ("In Europe and America/There's a growing feeling of hysteria..."), updated here with a Putin reference and given a thrilling cabaret strut; the desolation of the imagery in "King of Pain"; or the urgency of the hope for deliverance in "Message in a Bottle." Moreover, Jungr, with her subversive, unpredictable and often hilarious between-songs commentary, finds ways to make the songs personal, prefacing an empathetic "Roxanne" with a recollection of her time working at a knocking shop cloakroom and incorporating a memory of Isle of Skye sublime into a stunning "Fragile."

The album itself conveys all of this and is one of Jungr's most accomplished releases, sustaining an intimate and confiding tone, and testifying to the extent to which her and McDaniel's rapport has deepened. The structure of the album is the same as the show with only "Russians" snipped (shame!). The subtlety of the arrangements, the skill of McDaniel's piano-playing and the intricacy of the harmonies can be savoured, from the withholding of the chorus in "Don't Stand So Close to Me" to create a tense atmosphere that's equal parts seductive and sinister, through the elegant waltz of "Until (A Matter of Moments") (from Kate and Leopold), to the embracing warmth of a dappled, rapt "Fields of Gold" and the jazzy late-night ambience of "Moon Over Bourbon Street." Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, is the reinvention of "Desert Rose," Sting's collaboration with the Algerian singer Cheb Mami. Shorn of the chants and elaborate instrumentation of the original, the piece is revealed in all its crystalline beauty through Jungr and McDaniel's alchemic interplay.

Passionate and controlled, with exquisite phrasing, Jungr has seldom sounded better on record, while McDaniel's elegant, heartfelt leads on "Shape of My Heart" and "August Winds" are also highlights, the latter gaining poignancy from its reinvention here as an expression of gay desire and longing ("In my private moments/I drop the mask that I've been forced to wear..."). "This world is beautiful. Our world is beautiful," Jungr declaims on the added spoken word interlude on "Fragile" (which the record preserves). Humane and restorative, the radiant performances on Float Like a Butterfly offer further proof of that.

Float Like a Butterfly is available for purchase here.

See Jungr and McDaniel Live at Zedel's in October. Details here.

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