Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull

And suddenly, without any fanfare, there was a new Ian Anderson solo album. Or is it a new Jethro Tull album? Some people will wonder, as the name "Jethro Tull" is prominently traded on.

It’s a solo album. It’s a live concert recording of Ian Anderson with his new band and the Frankfurt Philharmonic Orchestra, playing a mix of tracks from three of Anderson’s four solo albums and Jethro Tull classics. Having just been paid by my biggest client, I snapped it up and gave it a few spins.

Ian Anderson solo albums tend to be slightly curious things. Walk into Light from 1983 had an Ultravox-esque electronic sound which signposted the Tull ensemble’s electronic direction on Under Wraps. 1995’s Divinities: Twelve Dances with God was a New-Age sounding album showcasing Anderson’s renewed focus on religion and multiculturalism, which also found its way onto the Tull album Roots to Branches. The next two solo albums blurred the boundaries between solo and band projects even further. The Secret Language of Birds relied heavily on Tull personnel and again reflected the same domestic and relational concerns as the Tull album J-Tull.com (the solo album was also much better than the group record) and the 2003 solo album Rupi’s Dance even used the same picture of Anderson on the cover that was used as a tiny insert on that of the Jethro Tull Christmas album.

This album, on the other hand, is clearly not a Jethro Tull record at all. The four rock musicians accompanying Anderson don’t sound a bit like Tull. On the plus side, this means we get someone playing the accordion who is actually good at it and enjoys it; on the minus side, we don’t get to hear Martin Barre’s taut phrasing. Guitarist Florian Opahle is good, but he just can’t compare to the master.

The music itself is pleasant enough, but a lot of it goes right through this listener. I’m probably not the sort of person this record is for – I’m not against a bit of orchestration or even rock/classical crossover, but the work here is a bit too light and unassuming for me. It lacks oomph.

It’s a lot more imaginative than earlier attempts to orchestrate the Tull oeuvre, like David Palmer’s A Classic Case record from 1985, though, and there are a few gems contained on the two discs. I liked hearing "In the Grip of Stronger Stuff" from Divinities with a real orchestra instead of the synthetic imitation of one that was used on the original record. I like bits of the new arrangements of "My God" and "Aqualung" although that last one fell a bit flat after the first half of the song. And for a tune that was originally created specifically to annoy Anderson’s neighbour, the 1968 cocktail lounge version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Bouree" has had a lot of staying power. It’s now partly re-classicized, bringing the piece full circle in a way. Or making it even more annoying. Your mileage may vary.

On the other hand, I was disappointed at the liberties taken with the 1987 track "Budapest", which is already very close to classical music in its original version and shouldn’t take a whole lot to orchestrate succesfully. A missed opportunity, that one. And there’s the matter of Anderson’s voice, which has become incapable of putting any kind of expression across. It’s really not very easy to listen to on many of the tracks. For that reason alone, it’s probably a good idea for Anderson to do more work in orchestral style, but more of it should be instrumental, and I think I’d prefer it if it relied less on reworking the classic Tull catalogue. Anderson is probably still capable of writing long, intricate pieces like "Budapest" – so why not do this orchestral thing properly and compose some light classical pieces especially for orchestral gigs?