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Eartha Kitt

Live at Cheltenham Jazz Festival


by Ian Mann

October 24, 2008


A vital performance. Those who were there are unlikely to forget it in a hurry.

The veteran performer Eartha Kitt has been in show business for over sixty years, her rich career taking in music, dancing and acting.

Musically she operates in the hinterland between jazz and cabaret and enjoyed a number of novelty hits in the fifties such as “Old Fashioned Girl”. Her trademark purrs and growls later earned her the role of “Catwoman” in the 1960’s “Batman” TV series.

Kitt is still an electrifying and charismatic performer and this concert at the 2008 Cheltenham Jazz Festival gives her the opportunity to demonstrate her jazz credentials with a pared down ensemble lead by musical director Daryl Waters. The repertoire includes an eclectic mix of jazz standards, show tunes, cabaret numbers and pop songs. Kitt even throws in a couple of her old hits but this is more than a mere nostalgia exercise.  It is a vital performance and a remarkable achievement for an octogenarian but Kitt loves the spotlight and is clearly in her element.

She opens with Stephen Sondheim’s hymn of defiance. “I’m Still Here” a spirited introduction to her unique vocal style, part sung, part spoken, conversational and flirtatious by turns.

“Speaking Of Love” sees her playing the mercenary femme fatale, “Come On A My House” showcases her legendary linguistic skills singing in Japanese on the old Rosemary Clooney hit.

The standard “Anything But Love” straddles the boundaries of jazz and cabaret with Kitt outrageously vamping it up.

Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is treated as a Latin shuffle and also given the Kitt cabaret treatment. You’ve never heard it played quite like this before. Porter’s tune segues into a smouldering version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” and then into a reflective “All My Life” burning with yearning, regret and hard earned wisdom.

“Uska Dara” a Turkish style romp showcases Kitt’s multi lingual vocals interspersed with her storytelling skills. She flirts outrageously with the audience and dances too at a guess. This is one item that might be better enjoyed on the parallel DVD release, which features extra material in the form of interview footage.

Another segue pairs “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “Could I Leave You”. Kitt’s chosen material has clever ,sharp, witty lyrics which allow her to draw out every nuance in her own unique, knowing manner. And Gloria Gaynor’s iconic “I Will Survive” just lends itself perfectly to the classic Kitt treatment.

“Too Young To Be Meant For Me” continues in the same vein before Kitt reprises “I Want To be Evil” one of her old fifties hits- pretty risqué for the time I should think.

Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” is another tune that could have been written with Kitt in mind and her old hit “Old Fashioned Girl” is given an intriguing updated acoustic arrangement.

Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” is given a swinging arrangement that gives Kitt’s uncredited backing musicians a chance to stretch out and solo briefly. Her band consisting of piano, bass and drums plus guitar and percussion back her superbly, always sympathetic but never obtrusive and exhibit a high degree of technical ability. All are given a chance to sparkle here and a great false ending keeps the audience on their toes.
Kitt plays tribute to Edith Piaf on “La Vie En Rose”, delivered in French and with a sparse arrangement that reveals just how good Kitt’s voice still is.

Jaques Brel’s “If You Go Away”, delivered in English, is equally effective and segues into another Piaf song “Hymn to Love”. These performances, naked and vulnerable and shorn of Kitt’s vocal ticks and gimmickry go down a storm.

“C’est Si Bon” is back to the old Eartha flirting with the crowd. A trio of Sinatra standards “September Song/“It Was A Very Good Year”/“Here’s To Life” delivered as a single item closes the show with Kitt celebrating her life in a thoroughly engaging manner. The audience clearly love it.

The encore is “Alone” an autobiographical celebration of her life written by Kitt in conjunction with Waters and given a suitably emotive sung/spoken treatment.

I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this album. Kitt is not a jazz artist in the traditional sense and is missing from most of the jazz reference books. I was aware of the hits but never really considered them to be of any real consequence.

Having said that she has always been close to jazz and has employed some fine musicians in her band, among them the percussionist Don Alias. The current crop are no exception, their playing here adds much to the success of this album even if they remain uncredited on the press release.

As for Kitt her unique vocal delivery cajoles and whispers, purrs and growls, is simultaneously sexy, flirtatious and vulnerable. The small group setting also reveals just how good technically she is even at the age of eighty one. The audio CD stands up on it’s own terms but long term Kitt fans will probably prefer the DVD. Those who were at the gig in Cheltenham are unlikely to forget it in a hurry.

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