Yes’ legendary voice keeps the band’s music alive amidst new landscapes.
By Steve Houk
Just looking at and listening to him today, even in his early 70’s, you can still see why Jon Anderson was born to be the lead singer for Yes.
Physically, he doesn’t look a day over 60, and still has that whole prog-rock thing going on, so ethereal looking, gentle features, blonde-gray locks. And when a spotlight shines on him, it is still almost God-like. And musically? He hasn’t lost much vocally, if anything. His stunningly high voice and wide range still manages to reach the edge of the stratosphere. Yes, Jon Anderson was, and still is, the essence of Yes.
And as he has done in the years since Yes splintered apart, Anderson has gone though his own series of awakenings, consistently doing solo work and collaborating with some of music’s most dynamic and revered musicians like Kitaro, Vangelis and Milton Nascimento. And all at the same time, perpetuating and sharing with the world the music of his legendary band in different and exciting new ways.
These days, he’s collaborating with another virtuoso, violinist and jazz composer Jean Luc-Ponty, on a tour and an upcoming CD/DVD called “Better Late Than Never” featuring the AndersonPonty band. And truthfully, he couldn’t be happier.
“Actually sometimes I can’t believe the talent of the band,” Anderson, 71, told me during a stop on his current tour with AndersonPonty. “The gentleness, the harmony, the energy of the people in the band, the warmth, the musical thoughtfulness and the driving energy, just ridiculous. It’s just fantastic. It’s a great time in my life to work with these kinds of people. These are the creme de la creme, it’s just amazing onstage. Really really a pleasure.”
Anderson and Ponty have known of each other for years, but had yet to truly collaborate. As well as music from Ponty’s canon, of course this band plays Yes music live, and Anderson sees every day what a thrill it is for these musicians to play his band’s epic tunes, and it’s easily as much of a thrill for him to work with them. The band plays the Howard Theater on November 10th.
“We decided to do this a year ago, and these guys are capable of anything musically, you just mention an idea,” Anderson said. “One day, I turned around to piano player Wally Minko and said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do a song called Wondrous Stories, it’s in this key’ and he would play and then I would start singing, and in the time it takes to just go through the song, everybody knew exactly the way we were gonna do it. Then I did a bit of reggae for a song called ‘Time In A Word,’ another classic Yes song, and they just jumped on it and picked it up and that was that. I didn’t have to speak much about anything, they’re already 90% there because they’re very talented people.”
Yes fans who are coming to hear letter-perfect versions of the band’s songs the way they played them in their hey day are in for a surprise, and by many accounts, a pleasantly eclectic one. This is the way it’s been with a number of the high-profile collaborators Anderson has worked with. Elaborating on and changing up some of the Yes classics seems completely normal to him.
“I make music in total honesty. I never think that I’m doing anything wrong. I always think I’m doing the best I can be. When I did the tour with Kitaro, we did some shows in Europe and in Asia, and the band was so excited to play [the Yes Songs]. Most bands, including these musicians today, are very excited to play ‘Roundabout.’ They just love the idea of trying to play it, because it is not an easy piece of music. And it’s like, let’s try something very different to present a song, like ‘Long Distance Runaround.’ Now it’s got a very sort of cosmic Indian energy, the Ragda, which is you play music in the morning and in the evening to greet the day and greet the sunset. It’s a very surreal sort of platform to sing ‘Long Distance Runaround.’ ”
In the days since he stopped playing with Yes, Anderson has made a point to work with young musicians, from his time with School of Rock to working with youth orchestras, even his current work with AndersonPonty includes collaborating with musicians sometimes 40 or more years his junior. It’s something Anderson loves to do, both for his own personal enrichment, as well as that of the young players he is working with who love the Yes music he brings to the party.
“It’s something that young musicians love to play,” Anderson said. “I’ve played with young musicians in orchestras performing Yes music and it transcends what you would call business. It’s just music that works, you know.”
And when Anderson harkens back to his days with Yes, all as he continues to bring their music to new generations, there is a sincere and palpable feeling of creating something special.
“35 years of excellence. And everybody, especially Chris who was there at the beginning, we climbed some musical mountains together. With Rick and Steve and Bill and Alan. Everybody that I worked with was committed to creating Yes music, which is really all that I could ever desire. That music transcends everything, and it’s music we were part of and helped create.”
AndersonPonty Band performs Tuesday November 10th at the Howard Theater, 620 T St NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here.