Live review

Kitty Whitelaw sings Anita O’Day at Bull’s Head (2019 EFG LJF)

Kitty Whitelaw sings Anita O’Day
(Bull’s Head, Barnes. EFG London Jazz Festival. 18 November 2019. Review by Peter Jones)

Better known in some circles as the vocal half of avant-garde duo Sealionwoman, Kitty Whitelaw tonight took on the challenge of Anita O’Day in front of an attentive and appreciative audience at the Bull’s Head. Even with well-known material like this, the charismatic Alloa-born singer has a theatrical streak that makes her performances just a tad other-worldly. Her voice is not that of the smooth, smoky jazz club diva. It comes from somewhere darker and perhaps harsher – for example, bringing unexpected melancholy to songs like I’ve Got The World On A String. In this sense her interpretations bear comparison to those of Cécile McLorin Salvant, who always finds some new, contemporary angle in a tune.

Kitty Whitelaw and band (Photo supplied)

As one would expect, Kitty Whitelaw had done her homework on O’Day, using the spaces between songs to tell us about the singer’s life, which if not exactly tragic, was often uncomfortable and full of drama (I recommend her biography High Times, Hard Times). Having learned everything you can about your subject, the central issue when planning a tribute show is next to decide whether to do an impression, or just to give an impression. Sensibly, Whitelaw chose the latter course, so there was no Newport Jazz Festival-style big feathered hat and white gloves. Instead, flanked by James Buckham (piano), Chris Hyde-Harrison (bass) and Eric Ford (drums), she simply ran through some highlights of O’Day’s repertoire. Jimmy McHugh’s I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me demonstrated how comfortable she is with the songs of the swing era and before. The stylish Buckham played the tune in authentic pre-bop manner, then opened Take the ‘A’ Train with a full chorus of stride.

The evening felt satisfying because all the songs were properly arranged: full use was made of the trio, particularly Ford, who stuck to brushes throughout (except on the intro to Sweet Georgia Brown, where he used his hands). His excellent, nuanced contributions underlined O’Day’s belief in the central role of rhythm for singers: all the greats had a complete fixation on maintaining the time values of whatever they were singing. As O’Day herself pointed out, “To be this rhythmically in tune you need to have a drummer playing constantly in your head.”

Considerable work had gone into transcribing O’Day’s particular arrangements of these standards (although Love for Sale and Stompin’ at the Savoy were Whitelaw’s own). The famous Jazz on a Summer’s Day cuts – Sweet Georgia Brown and Tea for Two – were particularly fine, the first building slowly from jungle rhythm and ominous alternative melody to conventional slow swing and then a third head rendered at full tilt. Whitelaw’s Tea for Two was just as hip as O’Day’s, Whitelaw fracturing the lyric with volleys of scat, and ending with some enjoyably silly to-and-fro with the band.

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