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Eartha Kitt Live At Cheltenham Jazz Festival Review

Live. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

They simply don't make them like Eartha Kitt anymore.

Michael Quinn 2008

They simply don't make them like Eartha Kitt anymore. That much is clear from this remarkably hi-energy appearance at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival earlier this year. At 81, Kitt remains the most individual, indefinable, uncategorisable talent to have crossed the Atlantic in her lifetime. That she remains hugely entertaining in performance – certainly on the strength of this 72-minute set – pays eloquent testimony to the film director Orson Welles' description of her as ''the most exciting woman in the world''.

Some of the excitement may have diminished in the half-century since that declaration, but Kitt, in her part-spoken, part-sung, part-growled way with a song is still a wonder to behold. She hits the ground running with one of her many signature songs, Stephen Sondheim's magnificently defiant piece of campery, I'm Still Here, and proceeds to work her way through some two dozen standards from the American songbook (with more than a nod to the contemporary French chanson), many of which she long ago staked absolute ownership of, not least Old Fashioned Girl, Uska Dara and the deliciously tongue-in-cheek I Want To Be Evil.

This is cabaret as it was meant to be: intimate and fun, and an object lesson in how to work an audience. Ably backed by a tight three-piece outfit (piano, drums, double bass) Kitt delivers a spellbinding account of Jacques Brel's If You Go Away, a heartfelt tribute to Piaf in an impassioned La Vie en Rose, a haunting Hymn to Love and a bright, playful C'est si bon. And in standards by Porter, Gershwin, Weill and Jobim she shows herself still to be an adept song stylist. If her take on I Will Survive somewhat misses the bull's eye, it still communicates with an unrivalled directness.

Throughout it all, there's much to enjoy in Kitt's multi-lingual gymnastics, her easy-going, delightfully self-deprecating rapport with the audience, and her astonishing ability to effortlessly switch pace and tone with an impeccable sense of timing honed and refined across nearly seven decades of performing.

It's not all perfect, of course – the voice is strong still but age causes it to noticeably falter in places – though it seems somewhat un-gallant to say so given the spirited and cleverly handled delivery. Kitt aficionados will want to know that a DVD of the concert – her first-ever live-performance DVD – is also to be made available. Running 18 minutes longer, it includes a conversation with the incomparable, indefatigable, irreplaceable star.

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