Jon Anderson on Working With Jean-Luc Ponty, Yes’ New Album and More – Exclusive Interview
Jon Anderson parted ways with Yes in 2008, when health concerns kept him from committing to a tour. But he has remained incredibly active over the intervening six years, juggling an endless variety of projects at a time — and doing so at his own pace.
That began around four years ago, when Anderson took a bold creative step. He put up a website advertisement — “Musicians Wanted” — asking complete strangers to send him minute-long musical samples. This opened the door for a series of Mp3-based collaborations, some of which formed the basis for his 2011 solo record ‘Survival & Other Stories.’
Anderson’s latest collaborative project features a far more well-known figure. The Anderson Ponty Band unites the singer with jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty — best known for his acclaimed solo work and side-man gigs with the likes of Frank Zappa.
After being re-introduced through Ponty’s manager, the two started an unorthodox creative process, with Anderson recording vocals over the violinist’s instrumental tunes. Once they realized the potential of combining their strengths, the two conceptualized their collaboration as an ensemble. The pair has now been joined by Ponty’s trusted backing band (drummer Rayford Griffin, bassist Baron Browne, keyboardist Wally Minko) and Anderson’s guitarist friend Jamie Dunlap.
The the Anderson Ponty Band’s plan is unique: Along with newly composed material, they plan to rework classic Yes and Ponty tracks for a “free-form” live concert experience at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Col. The results will be recorded for a planned CD/DVD package, and the sextet is counting on fans to back the project through a Kickstarter Campaign — which has (as of this writing) raised nearly $85,000 of its $95,000 goal. Donators will receive a number of increasingly tempting rewards, ranging from a copy of the album to visiting the mixing sessions.
Ultimate Classic Rock spoke with Anderson about the origins of this exciting new project, and we touched on a number of interesting topics along the way — including a forthcoming “progressive” collaboration, his thoughts on Yes’ recent material and the incredible “harmony” that defined Yes’ classic ’70s period.
I know from the Kickstarter video that you met Jean-Luc years ago and then came in contact with him again recently. Do you remember the first time you met?
The first time I saw Jean-Luc was in London. It was unbelievable to watch the band performing, and it’s just one of those things — you meet up afterwards for a quick “Hello, how are you doing? We should get together some time.” You never know. And then I think we met again in New York at a reception for Atlantic Records. Again, you say, “OK, that would be great!” It’s one of those things. I worked with Yes, and I saw Mahavishnu Orchestra in their inception, and I saw Jean-Luc play. I always wanted to sing with a band like that. I don’t know what it was. There’s something about the fusion of jazz and rock that made me want to sing ideas. Another band I wanted to sing with was Weather Report. I thought they were so free-form. I love free-form, with the singing. It’s what I love to do. Most of my life, it’s been verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, and sometimes you want something with a more free-form shape.
A friend of mine, we’d written some songs, and Jean-Luc played on one of them late last year. So I connected with Jean-Luc’s manager, and he said he would love for me to think about working with Jean-Luc on the songwriting side, so I found a couple of his greatest hits, and I sang on them and sent them to him. He kind of freaked out and said, “This is really different.” Once a month, he’d send me a new piece of music, and I’d sing these songs and send them back. My friend Jamie Dunlap is in the band now; he is pretty well-known for his music with ‘South Park’ and other TV work. He’s an accomplished producer and musician, and we’ve worked together quite a lot. I’d sent him the work that I’d done with Jean-Luc, and he loved it and started to evolve it a little bit. So we put together the idea of Jean-Luc’s band that he works with quite a lot with me and Jamie, and we have a little ensemble. We’ve been working on putting a show together, which is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I did that with Yes quite a lot, where I’d put together the shape of the show. [Stalwart Yes bassist] Chris [Squire] and the guys would let me put the show together because I like doing that.
So we’re putting the show together to go to Aspen, rehearse and do a couple shows there, and then take the show on the road next year. The plan is coming together. We’re sort of two-thirds of the way through, and I think the last third should be what happens in rehearsal — “let’s have a free-form part, a free-form section. Let’s see where we go with that.” And then we’ll piece it all together. We’re gonna do songs that I wrote for Yes that are pretty well known, because you wanna reach out to people.
I’m very excited about this project. It sounds like a unique concept.
It’s kinda funny. I saw my old friend Robert Plant, who I’ve known since 1966. I met him when he was in his first band called Listen. And we kept up a friendship over the years. When I went to Australia to do a festival, and he was there with his band, I was doing a little solo show in a sort of little tent next to the big stage, and I loved doing that solo show because it’s very unique. And he was there watching, and he was very funny about it: “I never knew you could play so many jazz chords, Jon!” And I said, “Oh, Robert, I’m making ’em up! It’s just the way my fingers go.” And I watched the show, and it was him with about eight or nine people in his band, performing some classic songs — some obviously he’d done with [Led] Zeppelin and things like that — and it worked! It didn’t have to sound like Zeppelin, because it worked. The song carries it! Paul Simon was on the same bill, and that blew my mind because he’s my favorite songwriter, and he did the same thing. He had an ensemble of 12 people onstage, and it’s the song that carries it, you know? So when it comes to working with Jean-Luc and everyone, I thought, “What we need to do is, do the classic yes songs but in a slightly different way — so that the song carries but the musicians and the music isn’t Yes. Because I don’t want to be a Yes tribute or try to pretend to be like the band. So we do a version of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and a version of “And You and I” and a version of one or two other things that I love to sing — and it works!
I like that idea. You run the risk of it sounding like a lesser version if you play the Yes material just like it is on the album. This way you can breathe new life into the music.
Right. You get a tag where you gotta use that tag because that’s the link that gets you into that section, and you have to use some kind of logic from the original but with a different instrumentation or something like that.
I’m looking forward to hearing that!
Me too! (Laughs.)
Could you talk a bit more about the collaboration and how the pieces of the original songs came together? I know you went back and forth. Was that through e-mail?
Yeah, Mp3. Life is a big studio, the world is a big studio, through the internet. People can say, “Oh, that’s not real music,” or whatever, but … music is a very powerful medium, as we know. It helps us to survive, helps us to dream and so on. So if I hear something sent to me in an Mp3 and I want to sing, I’m gonna sing! I’m not gonna say, ‘This isn’t real.’ I’ve been using the internet since the beginning of this century, for sure. I did an album called ‘Survival,’ and I still haven’t met half the musicians I worked with — not personally. They’re just musicians who worked together, and we enjoyed each other’s music. They’d send me music, and I’d write a song. Almost a barter exchange, a musical currency. Getting together with Jean-Luc was pretty cool. He’d send me some interesting stuff that I wouldn’t normally gravitate to. Because it was musically a little obscure, jazzy, and suddenly I’d find myself singing something that balanced it out and made it work for me. And then I’d listen back and think, “Hey, that really worked!” I wouldn’t think I’d sing that, for one thing, and then all these lyrical things would come through. It seemed like we were working together on a different level than just music. We were like brothers, you know? I spoke to Jean-Luc about where he came from in France, and his parents were from Brittany in the north of France. And it happens that my mother’s great-grandparents were from Brittany, so I said, “Hey, we’re brothers, man!” So I said that we should try a song in the style of Brittany, which we will. We’re working on it.
So he would send me a piece of music, say, once a month for the past four months. And I’d sing something on it and then put it to one side and get on with some project and then the next day re-sing it and find the lyric that I was trying to sing and what I was thinking about — and then feel, “This is really different for me.” It’s a different way of something for me, at times more storytelling-ish. Again, it’s not verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. I tended to think it sounds like music for stage, which is what I like doing. Yes music was always about performance. When the band started, we were band that went on the road. When we made a record, we’d already done that music on the road for a year. And the same thing happened over and over again until we got to that point where we were so successful that we made three albums in two years — we made ‘The Yes Album,’ ‘Fragile,’ and ‘Close to the Edge.’ So in a way, we started to become a band that actually constructed music in the studio rather than construct music, take it on the road to see what it feels like, and then record it. We started doing it the opposite way. We were going in the studio to record an album.
And that’s what we did over the years, and in a way, it became at times too — not clinical, but it became — record company execs would come in and look for the hits. (Laughs.) It freaked me out because the songs I thought were big hits, they’d say, “No!” So we were making music for the record company. And I thought, “Wait a minute, we’re supposed to be making music for the fans!” But in my deep heart, I was always making music for my conscious self and the band, and I was never listening to the record company that much. But you get a lot of that. What would happen between the lines, the record company would wine and dine the band members without me being there because they knew I wasn’t interested. So at times the band started to get a little bit out of focus, and that’s when we started making records that weren’t that good. They were OK. And when we were given free reign as a band, we would make some great records. But getting back to the Jean-Luc experience, it just seemed an appropriate time: I’m 70 this year in October, and it’s an appropriate time to get really back into working with a group of musicians and seeing what we can come up with.
It’s never too late to move in a new direction and try something new.
Yeah, I said to Jean-Luc, “We should call it ‘The Better Late than Never Tour’! Not a bad idea.
I’ve read that one of the seeds for this project was your interest in collaborating with a violinist. Has that been exciting for you? Has it been a challenge?
What happens is, especially the classics — the three songs I’ve done of his greatest hits — he plays the violin and does this beautiful dance right into what would be a piano solo, and that’s where I start singing. So I’m sort of part of the band. You finish your part and get to the bridge section or the possible chorus or tagline, and coming out of the tagline, it comes straight to the violin section again. I started working with Jamie, and it would seem logical to use the rhythmic violin style of John Adams, which I really like. He’s one of the great American composers who uses the violin as a rhythmic energy. I wanted to use that a lot so that we already had the violin sound with Jean-Luc’s violin dancing on top.
So I know the live performances will feature a mixture of reworked and new material. Will that also be what appears on the album?
It’s going to be a live show, because that’s who we are. We’re a live band. Right away, we said, “I don’t want to go into the studio and make an album. I want to do a live show.” It’ll be a two-hour live CD/DVD. It’s what we are. We’re not trying to make a hit album. We want to make a damn good live show, and that will transform itself into a video and sound experience. I have a friend who’s got a great studio in L.A., and I’ll might mix it there.
So, the band will be playing two shows at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado. Why did you choose Aspen in particular?
It’s funny. I was up in there in February. I’ve been up there every February for the past three years. It’s just an ongoing thing. They invite me back, and I do my show, sing my songs as a solo artist. It’s a very old 500-seater sort of thing, and it’s a very beautiful part of the world. You’re up in the mountains. You’ve gotta breathe deep before you get up and sing, for sure.
I really enjoy the snippet of the “Listening” demo, which sounds like a perfect combination of your talents. It has the jazz-fusion feel of Jean-Luc’s work with your very unique singing style.
Yes, it’s definitely the energy. It’s definitely this broad state. I listened to that yesterday and thought, “This is gonna be so damn good.” I was actually just printing out the lyrics because I have so many lyrics to learn before September. It’s just a different music for me — and it’s something I’m enjoying, because it’s very melodic. I suppose one of the things I said when I talked to the guys in the band is that I wanted to bring a more ethnic energy to it. What we’re going to do initially is put together backing tracks and make demos of them, but when we get together in rehearsal, it’s gonna be a little more free-from. I say ethnic, because we’re all from various parts of the world, making music. We’ve gotta find a very good foundation musically that stays I’d say half and half. You don’t want all the songs sounding the same. I put them together in sections so that they’re 15-minute works: a well-known Jean-Luc piece, a new piece, and then a well-known Yes piece. And then the other way around: a well-known Yes piece, an unknown piece, and a Jean-Luc piece. So, these 15-minute segments of music. I’ve always found that’s what’s very good for a musician: the journey of performance. Sometimes the audience really enjoys the journey rather than every four or five minutes us stopping and saying “thank you.” We don’t want to do that. (Laughs.) I want to go on a little journey, so we have four 15-minute sections of this sort of mixture of ideas. After “Listening,” it goes into Amharic music, which is from Ethiopia, and it’s one of the amazing things you find out later in your career is how much music Ethopian music created — ska, reggae, calypso. It all comes from Ethiopia. If you get a chance to Google old-school Ethopia, you can see sort of ’60s videos, which are kind of funky and quirky. But if you listen to old Ethopian records from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s so damn good. And the singing is unbelievable. The way the girls sings and the guys sing, they’ve got this incredible range. But the rhythm is ska and reggae. And it transferred itself to Jamaica and the Caribbean.
That’s one of the pieces of music we’ll be doing. I tried to explain this to Rayford (Griffin), the drummer, and he was kind of like, “Can you say that again, please?” (Laughs.) I said, “Just think ska,” and he said, “Oh, I love ska! It’s upbeat!” And I said, “Yeah, everything is up. Not like disco, which is all downbeat.” That’s the idea when you’re talking music — trying to bring out everything you’ve learned over the years, trying to bring that joy into the band.
It’s great that you’re able to explore all these influences, things you maybe wouldn’t have been in able to do in Yes or in a solo project.
Yes! With Yes, it was a very straightforward “I know what we are, and this is what we’re going to do. And this is the structure, and these are the ideas I’ve got.” So, it would pull and push quite a lot. In fact, when I look back at the history of the band, there were pockets of time where the harmony — the consciousness — was so tight: ‘The Yes Album,’ ‘Fragile,’ ‘Close to the Edge.’ The harmony — that’s why ‘Close to the Edge’ is such a classic piece of music and a beautiful recording, because we were in harmony and we would listen to each other. I was very adventurous and a driving force: “Let’s do a central section of ‘Close to the Edge’ where it sounds like the ocean.” “Well, how do you do that?” “Well, I don’t know, but we’ll do that for a minute.” I’d been listening to Walter Carlos in those early days, before he became Wendy Carlos, and I became friends with him — and her, eventually. It’s like ‘Sonic Seasonings.’ I don’t know if you know that work, but it’s one of the great works of the early ’70s. And I wanted to inject some of that into the band. And so we had such good harmony, that’s what happened.
I think the next time we had that great harmony was ‘Going for the One.’ ‘Awaken,’ I performed that with an Icelandic band and orchestra this last November, and they sent me a video of it. It’s a great piece of music! It was pure magic for me to know that we as a band created something that will survive musically for a long time.
I still keep up with Yes and enjoy the new music, but there’s definitely a magic to the earlier, longer-form pieces that you were involved in.
I know what I put into it, and what is missing is what I put into it, basically.
Have you kept up with Yes’ recent music at all?
I heard snippets of a couple tracks, and I just — I dunno. It’s OK. I just lost interest. I know what they’re doing, and there it is. It’s not what I would do. It’s not the kind of Yes I know in my head.
Well, we’re glad everybody is staying productive and making music. I hope you’re able to meet the Kickstarter goal and make the live album with Jean-Luc happen.
As I’ve mentioned, 20 years ago, I had this idea with Yes to do exactly the same thing. I just had this feeling we had no traction with record companies, and I suggested, “Why don’t we get all the Yes fans who are interested to get involved in the Yes family?” We could actually have Yes festivals and actually do seminars with each individual musician, and just for these 1,000 people who invest $500 a year, and we could use that money to make records. And they just looked at me, like, “Oh, there goes Jon again!”
Now, of course, Yes has their own festival.
Of course, yeah. It’s just sometimes people dream a little ahead of the dream. And that’s probably what I do quite a lot. I’m dreaming about what I’m going to be doing in 10 years time already. I was fortunate to put an advert on my website, “Musicians Wanted,” when the guys in the band weren’t interested in working with Mp3s at the beginning of the century. So I put up an ad on the website, and I got all these wonderful people around the world to send me a minute of their music. And I connected with a couple dozen of them, and I’m still working with a lot of very interesting projects — from wild and crazy operas to musicals to installation ideas musically. I started an installation project with a guy from Liverpool, a wonderful guy, and he suddenly asked me two months ago if I would be interested in doing what you might call “a progressive album.” He was friends with a guy I’ve met who lives in Sweden who’s a beautiful guitarist and musician. So I said yes, because I have these long-form pieces that need to be evolved by somebody, so I sent them to him — and lo and behold, he did a magnificent job.
That’s very exciting. Have you made much progress?
Yes. I said to the guy, “Work on these pieces. There’s a 20-minute, 15-minute, 10-minute works that I had,” and he came up with a flourish of music for these pieces. He really upgraded them and evolved them. So I said, “OK, now I have some really serious stuff.” (Laughs.) So he’s excited because he’s got two, three months off now, and I’m gonna send him some stuff that could be pretty wild. It’s really jumping into that progression of music. Not so much a “prog-rock” album but a progression of music. And it’s just one of those things. You think, “Wow, I’m glad I held onto that dream from 10 years ago about installations.”
Who is this musician? Could you tell his name?
His first name is Roine. I don’t know his second name. (Laughs.) He’s a wonderful guitar player. We’re just working on ideas. I’m very into visualization of music — because I think the savior of our state of mind will be computer animation. When I first saw parts of the first half-hour of ‘Avatar,’ I was a mess — because I saw the reality of the future and the potential of the future of what we can actually visualize. Of course, it became a movie that got into good-against-evil, but I was just seeing this incredible new world — and I thought, “I’m sure I’ve seen this before,” and it touched me heavily.