An energetic and (literally) plucky arrangement of Jethro Tull‘s biggest radio hit, the catchy 5/4-time curiosity “Living in the Past,” is the perfect opener to a new curiosity of an album, Jethro Tull – The String Quartets. Without vocals, but decked with unexpected key changes and with a new, slow middle section in 4/4 time, this strings-and-flute arrangement in itself is enough to prove Ian Anderson‘s undying creativity, especially when he collaborates with enthusiastic virtuosi like the award-winning Carducci String Quartet and composer/orchestrator/pianist John O’Hara.
While he has put out several albums of new material in recent years, Anderson seems happy to rework old successes too. Reviving classic material for string quartet (with additional instrumentation) is a striking new twist. The result is a serious lark: lighthearted but with plenty of creative depth.
“Sossity Waiting (Sossity: You’re a Woman / Reasons for Waiting)” revisits two early Jethro Tull songs, including one of the prettiest of all Tull melodies (“Reasons for Waiting”), with Anderson adding vocals to a one verse of a complex chamber setting. His voice has lost strength with age, but in this dense context, it’s no matter.
There are no vocals in “Bungle (Bungle in the Jungle),” which is given a rather dark introduction before loping into the popular novelty-rocker’s classic syncopated theme. The sturdy rock melody works surprisingly well in this intricate string quartet arrangement.
Anderson’s well-known predilection for mixing genres is evident in the torchy “We Used to Bach” – “We Used to Know” merged with Bach’s famous “Prelude in C” – where piano arpeggios derived from the Prelude underscore the song before the Prelude itself emerges, amid a web of strings and an improvisatory-style flute melody courtesy of Anderson, whose instrumental mastery has not declined.
A stabbing violin solo launches a dramatic “Farm, the Fourway (Farm on the Freeway”), while “Songs and Horses” is a pure string quartet mashup of the title tracks of Tull’s folk-rock masterpieces Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. The intricate rhythms of the first and the beautiful tune of the second combine for a lively, even thrilling canter. Then, as if to cool off, gentle strings and guitar accompany Anderson’s soft vocals on the miniature “Only the Giving (Wond’ring Aloud).”
What would a Jethro Tull revisit be without “Locomotive Breath”? But as the song’s bluesy melody lends itself less well than the other selections do to the chamber ensemble treatment, the results sound a touch gimmicky. On the other hand, the mandolin-driven “Pass the Bottle (A Christmas Song)” sounds authentically accusatory even if the vocals don’t sing with the acid of old.
The album returns to Songs from the Wood for two more fine tracks. The lovely melodies, dramatic development, and dance interlude of “Velvet Gold (Velvet Green)” all work beautifully in the string quartet format. And the Carducci musicians convey with vitality – and better than I would have imagined – the chiming themes of “Ring Out These Bells (Ring Out, Solstice Bells),” especially in the swelling coda, while the 7/4 beat of the verses keeps the arrangement charging forward.
Finally, the hard blues-rock of “Aqualung” is transformed into “Aquafugue,” which begins with a wholesale Beethovenian fugue on the iconic six-note theme. It’s the most daring and clever track, and it really put a smile on this old Tull fan’s face. When Anderson’s voice enters to sing the bridge about the “old man wandering lonely,” his crinkly warble suits the mood; the whole sung section evokes, and even furthers, the emotional depth of the classic hit.
For Jethro Tull fans, these arrangements should refresh memories of the original tracks. For appreciators of what is now trendily called “crossover” music, the album is an excellent example of what can be done when a fresh, and in this case collective, creative spirit gets ahold of timelessly great material.