Ian Anderson needs to improve his flute-playing like Kelsey Grammer needs to sharpen his comic wit.
But the venerable leader of rock’s legendary Jethro Tull says that’s exactly what he felt he had to do a few years ago and on up to this week’s release of the group’s 28th album, “Roots to Branches” (Chrysalis/EMI).
Still, it’s an odd thing to hear from a man whose musicianship is the hallmark of a group’s sound.
“I got back into playing the flute seriously a couple years back when I decided I would really try to learn to play better,” Anderson said in a recent phone interview from his English home, “and that continued with the solo project earlier this year called ‘Divinities’ and through to the new Jethro Tull album.
“The two projects were quite intertwined. In fact, there are a couple of pieces from the Jethro Tull album that were actually outlined in a basic demo before I even started working on the ‘Divinities’ project, so it’s all sort of contemporary, all part of that time of 12 months that stuff was coming from the same musical sources and musical interests.”
In turn, that revitalized his flute-playing.
“I quite enjoyed playing the flute on the Jethro Tull album, feeling that it was a much more integral part of the music than it usually is,” Anderson said. “I usually feel that I’m putting it in because people expect to hear it, and secondly, it’s sort of a decorative function. It’s usually the last thing to go on the record.
“On this album, a lot of the flute was music that was very fundamental to the way the music was written and arranged.”
The result – like it or not for some Tull fans – is one of the group’s most focused albums, brimming with songs of considerable depth. One track in particular, “Valley,” is a gentle but insistent passage about intolerance, leading one to believe it’s an anti-war song aimed at Bosnia.
“I guess it is,” Anderson said, “but it also could be a song about Northern Ireland or about city streets or be anything where you have people intolerant of their neighbors and jealous and suspicious, feeling that they impede each other through their proximity in some way.
“It’s a song about intolerance and trying to point out to people that we don’t always get along with our neighbors, but there’s so much unnecessary aggravation for a lack of willingness to understand and to sympathize and to respect. That’s probably the most important word of all: respect. You should respect people who may have a different set of beliefs.”
“Roots to Branches” entered the British chart last week at a very respectable No. 20. Anderson couldn’t be happier.
“It’s not going to be a monster hit album,” he said, “and it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think among Jethro Tull fans it has signs of being generally approved of and seen by people as one of our better rather than one of our worst yet.
“After 27 years, I’ll settle for that.”
BWF (before we forget): Click here for another Anderson interview. … Jethro Tull album discography – “This Was” (Reprise, 1969); “Stand Up” (1969); “Benefit” (1970); “Aqualung” (1971); “Thick As a Brick” (1972); “Living in the Past” (Chrysalis, 1972); “A Passion Play” (1973); “War Child” (1974); “Minstrel in the Gallery” (1975); “M.U. – The Best of Jethro Tull” (1976); “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!” (1976); “Songs From the Wood” (1977); “Repeat – The Best of Jethro Tull, Vol. II” (1977); “Heavy Horses” (1978); “Live – Bursting Out” (1978); “Stormwatch” (1979); ” A ” (1980); “The Broadsword and the Beast ” (1982); “Under Wraps” (1984); “Original Masters” (1985); “Crest of a Knave” (1987); “20 Years of Jethro Tull” (1988); “Rock Island” (1989); “Catfish Rising” (1991); “A Little Light Music” (1992); “20th Anniversary Box Set” (1993); “Night Cap” (1994); “Roots to Branches” (1995); “J-Tull Dot Com” (Fuel 2000, 1999).