When we think about flute playing in modern popular music unfortunately not many names come to our minds. In the rock field the only name that appears is Ian Anderson. A very big name though, as he is world famous for heading the band Jethro Tull from it´s founding in 1967 to this very day , leading towards it´s 50th anniversary in December 2017 and still doing concert tours worldwide.
Ian Anderson´s flute style is very unique compared to the mainly classical performance that we were accustomed to on that instrument. What Ian is doing which is different from his classical colleagues is the extensive use of his voice to support the sound that the flute gives. This is in many times not clearly to perceive, as the flute tone and the singing tone melt together perfectly because they are always the same pitch. So Ian must anticipate in his head what he is about to improvise on flute in order to follow his lines with his singing voice. But that should be for a well trained musician something that is going automatically.
The purpose for doing such an apparently complicated thing is, to give the flute sound a more aggressive timbre, very similar to that what a distortion pedal does to the sound of an electric guitar. And this difference is to be heard very clearly and turns the flute into a completely different sounding tool that blends fantastically well with electrified rock instrumentation.
Also frequently to be heard in Ian´s playing is the flutter tongue, where the flute sound is altered by a vibration of the tip of the tongue as in the Spanish „r“ like in „Arrrrriba!“ Many times Ian starts notes by flutter tongue and singing along at the same time, whilst stopping to flutter and continuing singing along as the notes proceed.
Other variations of the singing along technique is to sing along one, sometimes two octaves below the actual flute sound, both also sometimes in combination with flutter tonguing. What he also does is singing and playing in alteration as opposed to do it simultaneously. For example one clear flute note and the next note sung without blowing the flute. Also possible would be singing different pitches from the ones played on flute.
But where does Ian Anderson have this vocabulary from, that enables him so well to make the flute sound so very exciting compared to pure classical playing?
We find the answer already in their first album „This Was“ from back in 1968, when Jethro Tull included in their set of tunes the song „Serenade to a Cuckoo“ by the late Raahsan Roland Kirk, who was a famous jazz multi-instrumentalist at that time, featuring the flute extensively in his performance work.
Listening to Kirks performances and especially his performance of „Serenade to a Cuckoo“, we can hear everything that Ian Anderson does to define his rock flute style. So now we know what his tradition his: he transformed Roland Kirks jazz style into a setting of rock music. By this he had in combination with his songwriting and singing skills an easier way in his career, as rock music gets to a much wider audience as the more abstract jazz genre does, that very often comes only instrumental and without a singer. Also Ian Anderson had almost no competitors on flute in other rock bands. Maybe some who copied him and also played his songs, but there was no other original that could stand up to him on that instrument. But again I must say that his fame resulted from 3 talents combined: his very personal singing voice, his great songwriting abilities and third: his flute playing.
But let us again look at Roland Kirk, his mentor in flute style. He was an Afro-American and very much interested in the music history of Africa, keeping in mind that the music of jazz emerged through the melting of African and European music in USA, where these two cultures met by well known but very painful circumstances. So Roland also did research on the culture and history of flute instruments in Africa and found out about this singing along technique to alter the sound.
So by this we can trace back the style of rock flute playing to it´s origin in Africa, where this tradition is still very much alive and gets performed in concerts, festivals and recordings throughout the continent.
Here some links to check out for the interested reader:
African flute playing – Dramane Dembelé:
Afro-American jazz flute playing – Raahsan Roland Kirk:
Contemporary rock flute playing – Ian Anderson, head of the band Jethro Tull: