Ian Anderson reimagines Jethro Tull with string quartet
Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson’s gone the classical route before, having re-imagined the music of Jethro Tull on 1985’s A Classic Case (with London Symphony Orchestra) and 2004’s Ian Anderson Plays Orchestral Jethro Tull (with Neve Philarmonie Frankfurt).

Now the Thick as a Brick flautist is giving his most famous pieces a more intimate sort of makeover. 

Available now on BMG, Jethro Tull: The String Quartets finds Anderson dismantling familiar rock ‘n’ roll staples—then reassembling them in the cozier confines of a string quartet. Orchestrated by Tull keyboardist John O’Hara (who conducted Orchestral Tull), the twelve tracks heard here further validate the symphonic tendencies and cinematic approach taken on Tull’s progressively-painted original studio recordings vis-à-vis their acoustic reductions and respectful reinterpretations on hallowed ground by skilled string-smiths.

Which means the principal performer here isn’t Anderson, but rather his talented friends in the Carducci Quartet. Featuring Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming on violin, Eoin Schmidt-Martin on viola, and Emma Denton on cello, the award-winning, festival-frequenting foursome named after for the scenic Tuscan (Italy) town, evince both passion and precision on pieces whose source material Anderson concocted when they were just babes.

Drawing from seven Tull long-players issued 1969-1987 and a holiday record issued in 2003 (The Jethro Tull Christmas Album), String Quartets exhibits Anderson’s flair for writing, O’Hara’s talent for arranging, and the quartet’s competence in execution. Recorded live inside the crypt at Worcester Cathedral and at St. Kenelm’s Church in Gloucestershire, these beautiful bits are alternately spritely and vivacious, sanguine, melancholic, and mirthful. 

There’s opening salvo “In the Past”—a sinewy nod to the title track from 1972’s Living In the Past—and bouncy “Bungle” (a play on 1974’s “Bungle in the Jungle,” from War Child). “Farm the Fourway” tips a hat to Crest of a Knave (1987) offering “Farm on the Freeway,” while “Only the Giving” gives Aqualung (1971) entry “Wond’ring Aloud” an eloquent makeover.   

Other Aqualung epics pop up later: “Loco” packs the ostinato thrum of “Locomotive Breath,” and “Aquafugue” marries electric guitar anthem “Aqualung” to Romance Period leitmotifs.  Songs from the Wood (1977) finds representation with “Velvet Gold” (“Velvet Green”). Winter-themed compositions “Pass the Bottle” and “Ring Out These Bells” pull from measures of the Anderson-penned originals “A Christmas Song” and “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” 

Elsewhere, the quartet mashes elements of songs from completely different Tull albums into single, cohesive string selections: “Sossity Waiting” combines “You’re a Woman” and “Reasons for Waiting.” “Songs and Horses” dovetails “Songs from the Wood” with “Heavy Horses.”  “We Used to Bach” blends Tull’s “We Used to Know” with J.S. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.”

Anderson sprinkles the program with flighty, fanciful flute (he even sings/recites in two or three spots), but the focus here is the interplay of sweet violin strings and deep-resonating cello. There are a couple numbers (“Songs and Horses” and “Velvet Gold”) where Anderson makes like Gerald Bostock and disappears, prudently leaving O’Hara and the youngsters to their own devices (literally). 

Of course, certain Tull fans will always prefer the gritty, hard-hitting originals recorded by Anderson and company back in the ‘70s. But open-minded listeners will appreciate Anderson’s penchant for tip-toeing outside musical boundaries (again) and leaving his mark in what would be considered strange contexts and awkward (if not downright alien) environs by other so-called classic rockers.

Ian Anderson will play the music of Jethro Tull on tour through the U.S. this Spring and Summer.  Visit www.jethrotull.com for dates.