Jethro Tull Premieres Revamped 'Locomotive Breath' From 'String Quartets' Album: Exclusive

Courtesy of Ian Anderson
Ian Anderson

Jethro Tull -- The String Quartets was among several projects Ian Anderson had "in the back of my mind" for a while. Now the 12-song set -- which includes a rendition of "Locomotive Breath" premiering exclusively below -- is a reality, ready for release on March 24.

"I wanted to do these classic rock songs but in an authentic way," Anderson tells Billboard, "not the band with a string quartet but focusing on the string quartet with judicious ornament additions from myself to remind people, I suppose, of the originals and give it a bit more of an identifying feature. It was a challenge."

The main issue was finding the right ensemble to pull off the arrangements constructed by Tull keyboardist John O'Hara. That turned out to be the Carducci Quartet, a well-decorated Anglo-Irish group that Anderson was introduced to via one of the members' brother.

"I went to seem them in London, not actually expecting that I would be bowled over," Anderson recalls. "But they were, in fact, really good, and one of the recognized recital quartets playing quite often difficult repertoire from modern and traditional classical composers. Their energy, their precision -- they were really very impressive. So I was able to find a little hole in our mutual diaries when we could get together for four days to nail the album, which we did during the latter part of last year."

The String Quartets album (which you can pre-order here) is, as noted, based on the classical arrangement, though Anderson provides flute and vocals to a selection of the songs. Some of the tracks, Anderson notes, "had association with string parts in the past" -- including "Bungle In The Jungle," renamed simply "Bungle" for the collection, "Living In the Past" ("In The Past") and "A Christmas Song" (aka "Pass The Bottle"), a 1968 song that marked Anderson's first work with a string quartet. Other tracks "required a more radical approach," however, including "Aqualung," which was transformed into "Aquafugue."

"'Locomotive Breath' ('Loco') was a bit of a stretch, too, not something that you would say was suitable for a string quartet," Anderson notes. "In some ways it's rather obvious; It's the only one where I'm playing the melody line on the flute all the way through. Usually I tended to give the first violin of the quartet the melodies and I added things that were more supportive rather than making it all sound like it was me being supported or backed by a string quartet. But that didn't work for everything."

As much as he enjoyed the String Quartets project, Anderson doesn't anticipate making a sequel. "That would just be trying to find another tier of Jethro Tull material to do that with, and I'm not sure that going back and revisiting the same ground twice is necessarily a good idea," he explains. "At this time in my life I have other projects, other things that I would prioritize that I haven't done yet." That includes a Jethro Tull By Ian Anderson tour that kicks off May 26 with the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, followed by planned dates in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Europe and South America. Anderson is also finishing up a lyrics book, which will be illustrated with photographs from his personal collection.

"It's a bit of a vanity project," Anderson acknowledges. "No one needs it. I have to get 'round to finishing it. Every time I think I'm almost finished I realize I've got another album to add to it. It's a bit like writing an autobiography -- you get finished and suddenly something else happens and you want to include it. That's always the problem."

Anderson's Jethro Tull rock opera, paying homage to the real Jethro Tull -- an 18th century British agriculturalist and inventor -- has been put to bed after a year of touring, though a concert documentary from a show in Germany may be released at some point. Meanwhile, Anderson is planning an album of new material, most likely for 2018, with plans to start recording in March and finish off later in the year. But he's not yet saying under what name he'll put the album out.

"To me Jethro Tull is the repertoire," Anderson explains. "Quite clearly the band doesn't and cannot exist anymore. It's not really the musicians as much as it is the vast catalog of music I play when I'm out on tour. So if I'm making a brand new album of brand new music, it's only Jethro Tull in that it's in the Jethro Tull style. Whether or not I would release it under the name Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson I've honestly not even given it a moment's thought thus far."

Check out Ian Anderson's tour dates here.