Vocalist Rene Marie has always been an effervescent performer, but in recent years there has been an added theatricality and piquancy in her delivery. That’s why this first-ever album tribute to the late Eartha Kitt is an inspired gambit. Kitt assumed the nightclub and film persona of a campy, conniving, and exotic sex kitten in the Eisenhower ’50s, and was known to a succeeding generation as Catwoman from the equally kitschy Batman television show. Fresh from her one-woman show Slut Energy Theory, which premiered in 2009 and landed Off-Broadway in 2013, Marie was primed to put her insouciant stamp on past Kitt novelty hits such as “I’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch,” the title track and Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Marie’s rendition of Kitt’s biggest hit, “Santa Baby.” She could have simply reprised Kitt’s coquettish gold-digger, or mimicked the exaggerated, breathy delivery of many recent versions of the song. Instead, her distinctive phrasing and enunciation of the narrative turns it into a classic ballad worthy of year-round airplay. Sensitively abetted by her longtime cohorts Kevin Bales on piano and Elias Bailey on bass, plus special guest Etienne Charles blowing softly on trumpet, the tune is a bygone torch song now twinkling and smoldering like embers in the fireplace.
At the other end of the spectrum, Marie gleefully nails the naughty sophistication of Cole Porter’s birds-and-the-bees blues standard covered by Kitt, “Let’s Do It,” tumbling the composer’s rhymes over Bailey’s bass vamp and the chortling horns of Charles and guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. And don’t miss her lone original on the disc, the harrowing, erotic closer, “Weekend,” that gives new meaning to the phrase “guilty pleasure.”