Two CDs, coming from both sides of the Atlantic, honor Queen Elizabeth.
British tenor Russell Watson’s “Anthems: Music to Inspire a Nation” (on Sony) is his tribute to Queen Elizabeth in the year of her Diamond Jubilee celebration. It also celebrates the Summer Olympics in London.
While this is a nationalistic endeavor, even tea partyers shouldn’t object since Watson also appears regularly for American patriotic events, such as the Fourth of July concert in Washington.
Like most crossover efforts, this one has a mixture of the good (a lilting “Danny Boy” and a fine “Jerusalem”) and the questionable (“We Are the Champions”). On the latter, Watson is apparently as enamored of Queen (the British rock band) as the Queen of England. Another questionable piece is a duet with Vera Lynn’s 1940s recording of “White Cliffs of Dover,” in which Dame Lynn comes off as the champion.
Watson’s recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” works well with Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations.” However, I never thought the theme from “Chariots of Fire” needed words.
“Proud” (by Heather Small and Peter-John Vettese) has Watson’s most soulful singing and “Flower of Scotland” benefits from the accompaniment by the Pride of Murray Pipe Band.
“God Save the Queen” obviously brings British audiences to their feet, but I never felt a desire to own a recording of it (or our version “My Country ’Tis of Thee”). Actually, I feel the same about “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Watson, who survived two bouts of cancer, is in fine vocal shape.
Duke Ellington’s ‘Queen’s Suite’
To listen to an American genius’s work honoring Queen Elizabeth, pick up “Single Petal of a Rose” by the Duke Ellington Legacy. The nine-piece group was founded by the Duke’s grandson, Edward Kennedy Ellington II, who plays guitar on the album.
Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew is the leader and musical director of the band, and she shares arranging duties with pianist Norman Simmons. The title track, sensitively played by Simmons, was written by Duke Ellington as part of the “Queen’s Suite.” The Duke recorded it in 1959, but only one copy was pressed, and it was presented to Queen Elizabeth with the understanding that it was just for her own enjoyment.
Simmons has backed up a number of great jazz singers, and one of my favorite recordings is “Bittersweet,” a 1964 album he made with Carmen McRae. Nancy Reed (who sings “In My Solitude,” “Squeeze Me,” and “In a Mellow Tone” on the new CD) occasionally evokes McRae without imitating her. She is clearly a new talent worth following.
Saxophonist Houston Person brings his bluesy sound to Simmons’s “Home Grown.”
The CD includes some lesser-known Ellington pieces, such as “Johnny Come Lately” and “Happy Go Lucky Local,” as well as Erskine Hawkins’s “After Hours.” There are also some pieces by Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn, including “Blood Count” (the last piece he wrote, when he was in the hospital dying from cancer), “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” (presumably also relating to his medical treatment), and “Lotus Blossom.”
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