Ian Anderson goes orchestral with Jethro Tull’s music

By  Todd Whitesel

Ian Anderson is known to rock fans worldwide as the demonstrative flutist and singer of Jethro Tull. Although Tull’s music is frequently lumped into the hard rock, and even heavy metal, genre, Anderson is most comfortable performing music in an acoustic vein.

The longtime Tull frontman’s most recent project, Ian Anderson Plays The Orchestral Jethro Tull, finds him reworking classic tunes, including “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath,” with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra.

Goldmine spoke with Anderson from his home in Scotland about playing with a classically trained ensemble and the challenges and rewards that come from it.

Goldmine: In the CD liners you wrote that you tried to approach this project by meeting the instruments of the symphonic orchestra as a fellow acoustic musician, rather than just slapping a rock band on top of an orchestra. Some other bands have done that, but I believe your approach is more interesting.

Ian Anderson: That’s very kind of you. That’s what I try to do by, I suppose, coming to it from a different background. A rock band is a rock band. I’m always stuck and ever uncomfortable when asked what kind of music I play, because I can’t think of a better way to describe it then to say, “Well I play in a sort-of rock band called Jethro Tull.” Because the word “rock” seems to be the all-encompassing terminology for relatively loud amplified music — spans the period from the ’60s through today. But I’m uncomfortable with it because so much of Jethro Tull’s material over the years — particularly on big-selling albums like Aqualung and Thick As A Brick — there’s a lot of acoustic music in there.

I can’t call Jethro Tull an acoustic band; I can’t call it an acoustic-rock band or folk band or whatever kind of band because we do so much different sort of stuff. And I play in the company of loud electric musicians and a loud drummer, so I’m the unplugged guy in a rock band — that’s basically what I do. But I’ve been doing it for 37 years, apart from those occasions when I do the more acoustic music off stage, either with Jethro Tull or as a solo performer or with orchestra. Doing the kind of music I do and playing the songs and instruments I play, it is a much more natural and easy fit for me to play with my fellow orchestral musicians than it is to play with other loud rock bands. I’m not a comfortable rock musician, never have been. Even within the context of Jethro Tull — it’s a lot of fun for a while — but I wouldn’t like to be on stage for two hours playing just nothing but loud rock music. That would drive me nuts.

This setting not only gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate your music, but it sounds like there’s a real comfort factor for you to play in this environment.

It is much more comfortable because you hear much more detail. Obviously we play with an amplified orchestra in the venues where we have to pitch them up above the level they would play at in a small, traditional concert hall. We’re playing, quite often, in rather bigger venues, rock-size venues. I mean you have to amplify an orchestra even for a classical concert — that’s pretty much standard in most big classical concert halls these days. Usually just with two microphones hanging over the orchestra but just to give it that little bit of a lift, maybe just raise it up to the level of 70-75 dB, which sounds loud for an orchestra. For a rock concert 85-90 is sort of relatively quiet. [laughs]

I think it’s always been the case that music can be powerful and exciting without actually having to be ear-splittingly 747 loud. It can have power and drama and really make you feel moved in quite a physical way without brute force.

You’ve stated that you’re very bad about collaborating on songwriting. How are you when it comes to collaborating on arrangements?

That’s quite enjoyable to do if working with the right people. It’s kind of a different matter, because it’s something you’ve already written. Therefore it’s looking at other ways to present it and ways of dividing up available musical lines among different instruments and different voicings and being aware of the scope of the different instruments — the limitations of the range of the instruments, where they sound good, what combination of instruments works. These are things people go to college to study for years and years; bearing in mind that I neither read nor write music or have been to college to study anything other than drawing and painting, I’m not the man who really can orchestrate for that number of musicians and present them with finished material. On the other hand, I’ve usually got a reasonable working knowledge of how to go about it; I just happen to collaborate with people who have the skills to put it together and finally — working with me — come to an arrangement that makes sense.

Elizabeth Purnell collaborated with you on what I’ll call the “big four” — “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath,” “My God” and “Budapest.” Who is she?

She’s a trombone player by training and does sort of television music working out of a town in the west country of England called Bristol. Bristol is a big center for a lot of television drama and documentary stuff to be done.

You’ve said you never get tired of playing “Aqualung,” but for listeners it’s nice to hear a new spin on it.

That was one that was pretty much all me. On “My God,” Elizabeth did some interesting lines that were her own creative addition to some parts of that song. There’s one bit of music in the “Aqualung” track where she did a 16-bar orchestral piece that was not of my origination. But that’s collaboration; you toss in ideas, and you give people some breathing space to come up with ideas and lines and thoughts of their own. If they work they work. If they don’t then you think of a way to diplomatically advise that it’s probably not quite what you want.

Were many of the orchestra members familiar with your music before this project? What do you think they learned about Tull’s music?

I get a feeling pretty much with every orchestra I’ve played with — I’ve played with quite a lot in different countries — it’s usually the case that between ? and ? of them know who I am and have heard some of the music. There are usually quite a lot of CDs that are produced at the end of the first rehearsal period that they’ve brought along for me to sign — either their own or for friends. It’s very rare that an orchestra doesn’t know me at all. It has happened in the case of some orchestras from the former U.S.S.R. or Eastern Europe, where they’ve really lived in a vacuum and classical music is all they’ve ever listened to. In Western orchestras there will be always be some people who are familiar with Jethro Tull music.

I think what they would learn, within the first 10 minutes of rehearsal, is that it’s not going to be an easy ride. The music is quite deliberately, and I hope reasonably skillfully, written to provide a musical challenge to the best of orchestras and also, given the time restraints of rehearsal, to make some of the music pretty easy for them in as much as they can play it through once. By the time we get to play it through a second time, 90 percent of what they need to know about that piece of music they’ve got. Maybe we just have to run over a few bars here and there that aren’t quite gluing together.

That would account for maybe 30-40 percent of the music they have to play is very easy for them — very deliberately written so that it is. Then we have to concentrate on the more difficult stuff, which takes up most of the rehearsal time. I would say that probably 25 percent of the music takes 60 percent of the available time, because it does have to be repeated, repeated, and we have to get to the bottom of why things aren’t working out. It usually has more to do with rhythmic issues, because most classical players are relying totally on a conductor to keep them going in terms of tempo and also for their entries and dynamics. Whereas we expect them to be able to follow and play ensemble, together with, particularly, the drummer. That’s something that’s quite difficult for many of them to do; they’re not used to listening to specific instruments and playing with them. And some of them are just rhythmically not very capable people, because it’s not the backbone of classical music to have a metronomic sense of time. However, in rock and pop music you’ve got to be a pretty good timekeeper otherwise you sound stupid, and you won’t get a job [laughs] or keep it very long. Classical musicians are a little short on rhythmic accuracy and phrasing, particularly with time signatures and with rhythmic feels, which are not common in classical music. What we call “swing” — something that has a dotted crotchet or quaver feel to it — that can cause problems.

There are inherent difficulties in some of the music we play, which does ask the orchestra to step across the line into that world of syncopation and swing. It’s quite tricky to do. Some of them get it; some of them don’t. Some will never, ever ever be able to do it. You have to accept that they get as close as they can, and that’s as good as you’re going to get. So it’s never entirely successful, this experience. It’s always a question of degree, trying to get close to this point where you do collectively work as a unit, and you do collectively embrace some musical idea. That doesn’t stop me from trying or enjoying it. I just have to be realistic and never expect it to be perfect.

Are you self-conscious of your flute playing or singing when playing with classically trained musicians?

I’m not self conscious of my singing, because I don’t think of myself as a singer. I sing because nobody else in the band could ever sing; I’m the singer for that reason. It never embarrasses me if I’m getting up to do it for a job — singing in a concert or rehearsal doesn’t embarrass me at all. I know my limitations much better than anyone else.

As a flute player, of course, I’m having to get up there in front of the principal flutist of, sometimes, a name orchestra or to play with some other people who are famous flute soloists. Then, I’m very much aware that they’re sort of anticipating and wondering what I’m going to do. I don’t ever feel that I’m going to be compared with them in the sense of the technical skills that they have or indeed the quality of sound that they produce, because my way of playing — being completely self-taught — my way of playing is somewhat different to theirs. The major difference is rhythmic and more percussive use of breath and embouchure to produce notes that you certainly wouldn’t be asked to do in classical music, and you would be very much discouraged from doing it if a conductor found you doing it.

I’m doing a lot of stuff classical musicians don’t do or aren’t allowed to do. I think they know in a short space of time that I do what I do probably better than they can. But I’m not going to try and compete with them playing intricate scale-based motifs from a Mozart flute concerto. As much as I admire and enjoy listening to that music sometimes, it’s not what I particularly want to do or learn to do; I think we have our own separate worlds.

There’s some great flute players in the world of folk music and in other traditions like Indian classical music. I’ve played with the legendary Haripasad Chaurasia, India’s most famous living flute player. I guess he and I kind of circled each other like a Sopwith Camel and a Fokker Triplane in World War I, waiting to see who is going to put his finger on the gun button first; who’s going to fire the first round? There’s that sort of sense of it being potentially a bit of a duel. But you’ve got to get over that mentality very quickly whilst you stake out your own bit of territory; you then have to find the ways to bring your different worlds closer together. That’s quite hard if you’re two grizzly old guys — a bit of senile testosterone flying around. [laughs] After having done, I think, three concerts with Haripasad Chaurasia — he gave me a big hug in the end and gave me a very complimentary statement of his experience playing with me, which I was very humbled by. He’s someone who is considerably older than me and has been playing all of his life and is an undisputed master of his instrument — in a musically quite different style and technically a very different musical instrument to start with. It’s a great experience to do that; it’s a great experience to play with any musician, regardless of instrument, when you know that they are at the top of their tree.

I’ve played with some jazz musicians like Al DiMeola, the guitar player; with Bill Evans, the saxophone player; and Anthony Jackson and Victor Bailey, bass players. You’re playing with the people who are the best in the world. In some cases they are my age or younger. It’s always a sort of profound and very touching experience to do that, and you have to get over the sense of competitiveness and nervousness and just go with the flow. Once you settle down with it you can concentrate on finding the little moments that come, particularly when you’re working in improvised music. It becomes quite flirtatious between instruments, and that’s fun to do.

You include Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” on this album, and Bach’s “Bouree” has long been part of your set. Are you comfortable interpreting other composers’ music?

I have a theory about doing other people’s stuff based on, really, my reaction to what happens when other people play my music. Going back quite a long way people have had a crack at doing the odd Jethro Tull song, and I suppose my first reaction if somebody does one of my songs is I’m flattered that they would spend the time and effort and indeed the money to record one of my songs. When I hear the end result — I could absolutely detest it — but that won’t take away from the fact that they took the time and trouble. But I’m much more likely to enjoy the end result and be even more flattered if they do my song in a way that’s totally different from the way I did it. So if they change the key and the time signature and even change the melody a bit — and although it may sound sacrosanct, even if they change a couple of words — that doesn’t bother me. In fact, it makes it much more interesting — the fact someone would put their creative juices to work interpreting a piece of music of mine in quite a different way. Then my ears perk up and I’m even more flattered. If, however, they do it the way I did it — just, perhaps, not as well [laughs] — then I might remain flattered but asking myself, “What’s the point? Why bother?” [laughs]

I think it’s more interesting to do something a little different. So when I take somebody else’s piece of music — and it’s usually classical or traditional or church music that I’ve done this with — I’m interested to see what I can do with a good tune. I believe you can’t destroy a good tune; you can dress it up pretty badly and put a pretty badly hanging suit of clothes on it, and you can take it to places where perhaps it’s not keeping good company. But you never actually destroy the real inherent nature of a good tune. I’m interested in taking that tune and taking it out for a walk in a different neighborhood, dressing it up a different way and introducing it to some new friends. That’s what I would do with Bach or Faure or the anonymous composers of some traditional folk pieces or church music, or as I’m about to do with some music by Mozart, who I’ve never played before. I’m certainly not wanting to poke fun at it — I absolutely revere and respect these fine tunes — I would like to do with those classical composers what I would like to see other people do when they play one of my tunes, have a go at making it their own.

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