Jon Anderson can be a difficult man to keep up with.
Even at age 74, he can claim a prodigious output. He composes new music on a daily basis, still maintains an association with one of the two current versions of Yes, and also maintains an active solo career that finds him regularly on the road.
“It’s an adventure,” he said, speaking by phone following a series of warm-up gigs at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York. “I’m happy to keep working. What else am I going to do? Drive a taxi?”
Indeed, that would hardly seem appropriate, given that his dulcet vocals still project the crispness and clarity that graced not only the best albums in the Yes catalog (“Fragile,” “The Yes Album,” “Close to the Edge,” et al.), but also his chart hits with Greek composer Vangelis throughout much of the early ’80s.
In addition, he claims an ample individual output, one initiated in 1976 with his solo debut “Olias of Sunhillow” and now continues with his recently released album “1000 Hands: Chapter One.” Surprisingly enough, the latter effort was initiated nearly 30 years ago. It’s little wonder then that it features a sprawling list of guest musicians, among them, guitarists Larry Coryell, Steve Morse, Rick Derringer, and Pat Travers, keyboard players Chick Corea and Jonathan Cain, violinist Jean Luc Ponty, drummers Carmine Appice and Billy Cobham, as well as several prominent members of Yes.
Then again, Anderson has never been known to be short on ambition. After helping co-found Yes more than 50 years ago, he was the one responsible for some of the group’s grandest concepts while frequently overseeing the hires of the band’s newer recruits. Likewise, his career has found him making a number of often unexpected cameos, ranging from work with prog purists like King Crimson, Mike Oldfield and Iron Butterfly, to his more unlikely pairings with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Toto and, on various occasions, making contributions to several soundtracks and orchestral ensembles.
The latter scenario also comes as no surprise given that he lists classical composers such as Sibelius, Debussy and Rachmaninoff at the top of his preferred listening stack these days. Then again, Anderson has always had a reputation for both intellectual curiosity and spiritual solace. He supposedly tried to convince his Yes bandmates to record the landmark album “Topographic Ocean in ta forest,” and when they declined, he littered the floor of the recording studio with hay and animal cut-outs to simulate the effect of the great outdoors. Many of his individual albums have been inspired by science fiction themes and he’s known to be particularly fond of “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien. Rumors persist that prior to each concert, he meditates in a tent backstage surrounded by crystals and dreamcatchers.
Those elf-like qualities are immediately apparent as soon as Anderson answers the phone to discuss his upcoming visit to Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre on Aug. 14, his first such appearance there as a solo artist. His high-pitched speaking voice makes it apparent that his famous alto comes quite naturally.
Clearly Anderson is stoked with sensitivity. He admits that when he recently saw the film “Yesterday” — a movie about a musician who suddenly wakes up in a world where the Beatles never existed and then covers their songs while amazing audiences who were unaware — he actually wept throughout.
“If it wasn’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today,” he said.
Or, for that matter, doing what he did to make him and his band famous. Yes’ eponymous debut included a striking cover of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing,” as well as an imaginative version of the Byrds’ “I See You.” Later, the group would cover songs by Simon and Garfunkel (“America”), Richie Havens (“No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed”) and the Buffalo Springfield (“Everydays”). These days, Anderson replays several Yes originals in his live set, among them, the aforementioned Paul Simon song.
A spoiler alert may be necessary, but suffice it to say, Yes fans ought to be mighty pleased with his selection.
That said, Anderson made headlines in recent years by successfully gaining the right to legitimately refer to his current collaboration with keyboard player Rick Wakeman and guitarist Trevor Rabin as Yes. Like Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman played critical roles in the band at various points in its trajectory, although at this point, according to Anderson, the band is on temporary hiatus.
“We might do something next year or the year after,” he said. “Everybody’s doing what they want to do in the meantime. Rick’s doing stand-up comedy along with his piano recitals, while Trevor is scoring films, which is something he really enjoys.”
Inevitably however, the discussion turns to his former colleagues who exclusively claimed the name Yes throughout the past decade. Although Anderson played a role in every Yes studio album (with the exception of their two most recent offerings, “Fly From Here” and “Heaven & Earth”), he was unceremoniously replaced in 2008 while recuperating from an asthma attack — first by singer Benoit David, and later by current singer, Jon Davison.
Nevertheless, despite the varied projects he’s undertaken over the years, Yes remains of primary importance to him. In the ’80s, he was part of an offshoot dubbed Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, an ad hoc ensemble featuring members of the so-called “classic Yes” lineup. Nowadays both Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman, and a touring version of the band featuring Davison, drummer Alan White, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Billy Sherwood and keyboardist Geoff Downes, share equal rights to the name.
Following Yes’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, there appears to be no animosity between the two factions, but there are no plans to reunite either.
“It’s like a big family,” Anderson said. “Life has its ups and downs, but we’ve all stayed in touch. After all, I’ve known many of them for over 50 years.”