'I am not a fan of 'Metallica-plus-symphony-orchestra' or the various attempts in the past of rock groups to do orchestral work," asserts Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson. "It's rarely successful."
But that has not stopped the flutist from hitting the road for a summer series of "orchestral" Jethro Tull concerts, including one slated for the Marin Civic Center on Aug. 3.
"I'm not convinced that what I'm doing is completely successful, either," he chuckles via transatlantic phone from England, "but I've tried to learn from what I think are the mistakes of other people in writing arrangements. Perhaps as an acoustic musician playing in a rock band, I'm a bit more qualified to understand some of the difficulties, and the ways to potentially overcome them, than maybe some others."
It's the day after his daughter's wedding, and Anderson is in an expansive mood as he dismisses a suggestion that recasting Tull material orchestrally might help keep it fresh.
"For the others, there may be relatively set parts they have to play, but for me there's lots of improvisation in Jethro Tull music, so it's not something that becomes stale. It is, however, interesting to find other ways to take a tune and dress it up in a new set of clothes--set it up in front of the mirror, see how it looks; take it out for a walk down the street, see it if gets admiring glances. I think musicians, like painters and writers, very often revisit territory they've explored before and rework old ideas and try to do things in another way. It's not a symptom of running out of ideas."
Anderson's ventures into the classical realm began four years ago when a German orchestra invited him to come perform with them and agreed to finance the necessary arrangements and orchestrations in lieu of a cash talent fee. This was no small consideration, as Anderson neither reads nor writes music himself, but dictates his ideas to collaborators who do.
Building on those initial 16 arrangements, Anderson has compiled a considerable orchestra repertoire to choose from. It includes fan favorites such as "Locomotive Breath," "Thick as a Brick" and "Aqualung," which have been considerably reworked for the symphonic context, and other tunes that required far less refurbishing. "Many Jethro Tull songs did originally have orchestral components," Anderson says, "especially from the late '60s through the '70s, because these were the days that preceded samplers and sophisticated synthesizers, so we used real instruments. For these songs, it wasn't a question of changing them; it was a question of playing them like they were recorded."
Anderson and a five-member core band, including a featured violinist, join the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra for a program that is about two-thirds Tull material, both familiar and obscure, augmented by what Anderson calls "some church music, some classical music which I've taken and put into themes that are perhaps more jazz- or folk-related. And some solo-album stuff."
These classical concerts seem to further affirm the wisdom of Anderson's choice of instrument, back when his postcollegiate interests shifted from fine arts to music. "There were other things hanging on the wall in the music shop that I might have gone for, the oboe and the cello being a couple of the things that caught my eye," he recounts. "But the mechanism of the oboe and the delicacy of the reeds warned me off, and the cello is a bit tricky when you're getting on the bus. So I decided to give the flute a go, 'cause it seemed, not just marginally easier to play, but considerably more 'pocketable,' which was a major factor in my decision."
Nearly 40 years later, he is pleased though not surprised to still be playing it. "That was always my intention, to be a working musician as a lifelong career, not just to have a little dabble at it and be a pop star for a day," Anderson reflects. "I always thought about music as a working life, and although, quite clearly not many people manage to succeed compared to the number who try, there was a point where I thought, 'I think I could do this, if I don't make any horrible mistakes, or lose my senses or my health, I could carry on doing this for a while.' And indeed I've been lucky to be able to do that."
Ian Anderson joins Marin's own Skywalker Symphony Orchestra at the Marin Center on Thursday, Aug. 3, at 8pm. 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. $25-$90. 415.499.6800.