The flamingo-esque flutist is coming to town.
Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson — known for his one-legged flute playing — will be kicking off Red Butte Garden’s Summer Concert Series on May 23 with a repertoire of songs he’s certain will satisfy fans of the U.K. rockers and controversial heavy metal Grammy winners. He reflected on his iconic flute playing, career success and the satisfaction of performing in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
In a nutshell, the idea of playing the flute was an afterthought, and Anderson’s revolutionary use of the instrument a product of inexperience.
“I began as a guitar player in my teenage years, and I discovered that in 1966, Eric Clapton was around and he was a much better guitar player than I was,” Anderson reflected. “After a year, I thought maybe I should look around and find another instrument that could be a feature in what was then a fairly primitive blues band, and since the flute was not a very likely instrument to find in the blues context, I thought maybe that would be worth a go.”
So, in the summer of 1967, Anderson traded in his electric guitar for a flute — an instrument he quickly discovered he was incapable of getting to produce sound. In December of that year, after a few months of neglect, he turned once again to the flute and managed to play a few notes. A month later Anderson’s band became known as Jethro Tull, and his flute was starting to give the musicians new life.
“I was trying to give (the flute) an equal standing to the electric guitar, and so that set me aside from other flute players,” he said. “It became a pointed difference in early Jethro Tull, and the thing that made us stand out from what was quite a large crowd of blues bands playing up and down the length and breadth of the U.K. — so we were kind of noticeable because of the flute.”
And for the guitarist-turned-flutist, developing proficiency was a constant trial-and-error session that eventually led to a unique style that championed forcefulness over the more conventional, decorative way of playing.
“I really have no idea how other people learned to do it,” Anderson said. “It was very difficult for me to produce a clear note. I found it easier to make the note sound if I was very aggressive, and if I vocalized the note as well at the same time as playing. It became a much rougher, more of an aggressive sound, so I developed that way of playing right from the beginning to cover up my really poor technique.”
And with Anderson and his flute at the forefront, Jethro Tull delved into a variety of genres: blues rock, hard rock, progressive rock and folk rock — a move that was not so much a commercial strategy as it was a natural progression of interest and taste.
“(It’s) the same sort of strategy as I have when I go to a restaurant and look at the menu and think ‘Well, what do I feel like today? If I had that to start with, what would be good to have as a main course?’” Anderson said. “It’s the same kind of strategy as choosing the food you eat, or the company you keep, and you don’t really stop to analyze why. You just are drawn to certain people, and so it is with music. I’ve always been drawn to a fairly eclectic variety of music, and I’ve always enjoyed, I suppose, the excitement of dipping a toe in the water of some other musical genre and seeing if I can turn it around a little bit and bring it into my own sphere of operation.”
Perhaps it is that same sense of curiosity that has led to Anderson’s most recent work, “Jethro Tull: The String Quartets,” that offers a classical reworking of the band’s standard hits while still maintaining some elements of rock. The album was released earlier this year and features a collaboration between Anderson and the Carducci Quartet. The album includes classical renditions of songs including “Living in the Past,” “Locomotive Breath” and even a Bach-influenced rendition of “Aqualung” that transforms into “Aquafugue.” It’s a project Anderson has given much thought to over the years.
“I guess I was always fascinated by the austerity of the string quartet compared to the symphony orchestra, which has seemingly endless possibilities” he said. “The string quartet is very focused and very dangerous; it’s tight-rope walking without a safety net.”
And although fulfilling, Anderson said the album was a stand-alone project and won’t be included in any concert tours — at least for now. On his current tour that stops in Salt Lake City on May 23 (the show is currently sold out), Anderson is giving his fans what he calls “the best of Jethro Tull.”
“I think that’s something you can’t escape, whether performing to older fans or much younger, newer fans,” Anderson said. “They only get to see you every so often, so for many, they want to hear the heavy-hitters.”
The musician does much catering to his fanbase, but he makes sure that he’s getting something out of the performance, too. He draws a compromise with his fans each time he creates a setlist. While there are a few songs that always remain on the list, the rest is “a variable beast” that allows him to perform with spontaneity each night.
And while that might seem like a chore for someone who is “69 ¾ of age,” it’s a thrill that keeps Anderson going night after night.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect show,” he said. “There’s always something you knew that you could’ve done better, and that’s in a way what drives me at any rate to continue to perform, is the feeling that however hard I try I’m never going to do a perfect performance. In a sense that’s frustrating, but in another sense it’s challenging and gratifying.”
If you go ...
What: Jetro Tull by Ian Anderson
When: Tuesday, May 23, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Butte Garden’s Summer Concert Series, 300 Wakara Way
Note: Concert currently sold out