Jon Anderson of Yes on Springsteen, Nina Simone, and More
From the moment they met, Jon Anderson knew a musical collaboration with Roine Stolt would work.
“When we first met two years ago, I knew we would speak the same musical language,” the renowned former Yes lead singer tells me from his northern California studio. “There is something in a greeting that makes sense of everything, and, when we were asked to try out some musical ideas, it seemed very easy with Roine, a really gentle man.”
Thomas Waber, the head of the Inside Out Music label, suggested the two join forces, and Anderson began working long distance with Stolt, a Swedish prog-rock veteran and renowned guitarist with Kalpa, the Flower Kings, and Transatlantic.
“We worked exclusively through the Internet — the new world studio,” Anderson says. “It’s just a unique way of creating. I sent him songs that I really thought would work together as a long-form idea, saying we should try and create a lasting journey of sorts. Roine turned them into a beautiful, ever-flowing musical concept. A lot of his music made me sing ideas back to him, and the project evolved. We have great trust in each other’s judgment.”
The result was Invention Of Knowledge, which took one and a half years to write and record before it was released in the US July 8, on Inside Out Music. The album is publicized as “new music in the spirit of early epic works” — such as the 1974 Yes album Tales from Topographic Oceans, the group’s 15-minute-plus song “Awaken,” and Anderson’s 1976 solo album Olias Of Sunhillow — but with “a modern twist.”
Take out the hype, and it’s a lush, beautifully played and sung prog-rock, jazz, world music, and folk album. It stands strongly alongside some of Yes’s greatest works.
On Anderson’s website, Stolt gives his thoughts about the new album. “It is not aiming at being new Yes music — just new music, modern and classical, rock and ethno, tribal and orchestrated, grooving and floating. Hopefully, (it’s) in the true spirit of progressive, leaning forward, surprising and also comforting, with familiar run-arounds. We’ve been inventing as we go along. Jon is an endless source of new ideas. We’ve been bouncing ideas back and forth for months, and, as a result, there are probably dozens of versions of these songs. It’s been a very interesting and rewarding time, and the result is just insanely detailed.”
Invention of Knowledge follows another ambitious project involving Anderson last year. He joined with jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in the AndersonPonty Band and released the CD/DVD Better Late Than Never. Featuring new songs and new versions of Yes classics, it was also a unique musical twist for Anderson, and the CD/DVD set remains a pleasure to listen to. The DVD was recorded live in September 2014 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado — about a year before a 16-date AndersonPonty Band tour of the USA.
“Jean-Luc is miraculous, an amazing artist, plus the musicians in the band just blew me away every show,” Anderson tells me. “There is nothing like them. I was constantly on a high on stage, listening closely to everyone. They were truly amazing and loving people who were very dedicated to their craft. It was a musical dream for me and the people who came to the show. More please, more.”
Anderson, who, like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, has carved out a niche as an adventurous, exciting musician outside of the supergroup that brought fame, would also like to see an encore with Stolt.
“I would love to do more of this kind of work with Roine through the coming years, and maybe do some concerts next year. The more I hear the album, the more I realize the wonderful music he created for us. I’m very open to try something more when we find the time. I already feel a strong bond with him, and the music will help and guide us.”
But, first, another project that could be a monumental piece of prog-rock history beckons. Anderson has reunited with former Yes keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, who played on four albums with Yes and has released numerous solo albums and motion picture soundtracks. The trio has grouped the first initials of their last names to form ARW and will embark on a 32-date U.S. tour dubbed “An Evening of Yes Music & More,” beginning October 4 on Orlando. They also have 11 European dates scheduled for March.
“It just seems so natural for me,” Anderson tells me. “I’ve been pushing the idea for a while. I’m a big fan of Trevor’s musical adventure, creating wonderful film scores and really pushing the musical envelope. We have become fast friends over the past 15 years. As for Rick, well, all he has to do is call, and I come running. He has that certain magic and can perform like nobody else. The three of us totally love to challenge each other as part of the Yes gene. Deep inside we feel a part of the Yes history, so why not get together and chase more musical dreams? We know we will have fun. And music — and the fans, of course —again will guide us along.”
Anderson says the musicians who will round out ARW on stage will be drummer Louie Molino, bassist Lee Pomeroy, and keyboardist/guitarist Gary Cambra.
Anderson co-founded Yes with bassist Chris Squire in 1968. He sang on every Yes album — except 1980’s Drama — until he was stricken with respiratory problems in 2008, when the rest of the band replaced him with Benoit David.
“I never left Yes,” Anderson tells me. “They left me when I was very sick and unable to sing — simple as that. I see ARW as a 21st-Century Yes. There is plenty of room for many Yes bands. I think one day I will be able to explain what Yes music really means to me, but, for now, I just feel very committed to create and sing more and more.”
When I press Anderson further for his view of Yes’s legacy in the history of rock music, he relents.
“Okay, I will try to explain now,” he says. “It really is easy to say for me: Yes music is in my DNA. “It’s my life. There are so many reasons for the music of Yes. To stay ahead of the game is very tricky. The only truth is the music. Be adventurous, be grateful, and be thankful to Chris and all the people that make up the story of Yes. That is my deep mantra — and to be open to try new things. We have not finished the journey by a long stretch of the imagination, and the more extreme the better — to be unafraid of experimenting. Music is far more important. It is the air that we breath, it binds us together on this Earth.”
Many consider Anderson one of the finest vocalists in rock history, so I ask which singers are his favorites. “So many singers, so many great artists in this life — Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Pavarotti, Paul Simon, Nusrat ali Khan, James Brown, The Beatles, Joe Tex,” he responds. “So many, so many, so many great modern singers. I get very emotional watching young kids singing on American Idol — wow! Amazing.”
What concert was the best one he has attended as a spectator?
“Mmmm,” he muses and then names five. “The Boss [Bruce Springsteen] in Ireland 10 years ago with me and my wife, Janee, singing every song in the middle of the crowd. It was the same with Paul Simon three years ago in Australia. And watching Randy Newman on Vancouver Island sing all my favorite songs of his. And it was so emotional watching Bonnie Raitt and her great band last year. Seeing Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace in 1977 — what a voice! All those concerts were just fabulous and so wonderful. I could go on and on.”
Fifty-three years ago, though, was the concert that influenced him most as a musician. It was in April 1963 in Southport Floral Hall, about 20 miles north of Liverpool.
“I was watching the Beatles play their first album, plus some great rock ‘n’ roll classics with my older brother Tony,” Anderson says. “There was no screaming, just cheering like crazy at the end of every song. It totally changed my life forever.”