Album: The Living Tree
Artist: Anderson/Wakeman
2010 Gonzo Multimedia

Jon Anderson: vocals
Rick Wakeman: music

Produced by Anderson/Wakeman/Erik Jordan
Engineered & mixed by Jordan
Art by Mark Wilkinson

1. "Living Tree (Part 1)" (4:04)
2. "Morning Star" (4:30)
3. "House of Freedom" (5:38)
4. "Living Tree (Part 2)" (4:37)
5. "Anyway and Always" (3:51)
6. "23/24/11" (6:25)
7. "Forever" (5:33)
8. "Garden" (3:23)
9. "Just One Man" (4:46)

Lyrics by Anderson; music composed by Wakeman, except (9) by Cubert

Notes: (***) The Anderson/Wakeman collaboration began with a tour in 2006 and four of the songs here, including (5), (7) and (8), were performed on that tour. Work began on an album but failed to progress. In 2008, Anderson then suffered a series of serious medical issues. Work began anew in August 2010 and the album was rushed through and available on the duo's October 2010 tour (apart from the first couple of shows). Wakeman explained the process in his Aug 2010 GORR!:

In case you’re wondering how we are going to record with Jon in California and me being in Norfolk, [...] I will be preparing all the back tracks here and then sending the files to Jon who will be recording the vocals using his mobile system whilst out doing some solo shows in America. The files then get sent back to me for Erik to mix, they then go off to Voiceprint for mastering, and [...] finished product should appear at the first show in Cambridge in October!

Although the compositions are all credited to Wakeman, on tour Anderson described the process as Wakeman providing chords and he working out vocal melodies to fit, before Wakeman then recorded the music.

Highlights for me are the pairing of "Morning Star" and "House of Freedom" at the beginning of the album and "Anyway and Always". Although the album all consists of fairly short pieces (most 4-6 minutes long), the likes of "Morning Star" and "House of Freedom" are still structured like a classic prog number, with contrasting moods over the course of each piece. With mostly just vocals and piano, the pair still manage to achieve the dynamism of a larger instrumentation. Yet it's sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that these pieces would benefit from a larger band, or, to be blunt, from being Yes songs. The occasional poor choice of keyboard sounds, like some particularly cheesy ones in "House of Freedom", only strengthens that response. The only weak song for me is "Forever", a trite love song with an obvious arrangement. But generally, and to my surprise, it is Rick's piano playing and compositions that make this work rather than, and sometimes despite of, Jon's singing and lyrics.

Let's start with the lyrics. Anderson is often accused of being too explicit in his modern lyrics compared to the expressive, if not always comprehensible, convolutions of rearranged livers in the 1970s. The same criticism will re-emerge here. The lyrics are also often very spiritual, appealing if you share Anderson's faith opinions, but possibly off-putting otherwise. One might interpret "Just One Man", the album closer, to be a Christian song about Jesus. It would not sound out of place on a Christian rock album. But any interpretation must be viewed in the context of Anderson's syncretism (cf. "Big Buddha Song" on Survival and Other Stories) and his devotion to religious guru Audrey Kitagawa. On tour, Anderson has been explaining that "Just One Man" is about Jesus and Muhammad and Buddha. Anderson thanks Kitagawa in the liner notes here (and on Survival and Other Stories) and the title track appears to be a paean to her. Having said the lyrics are more obvious, "23/24/11" is more opaque. On tour, Anderson has said the song is about about a soldier in Afghanistan who has 23 days, 24 hours and 11 minutes left to the end of his tour.

The keystone to any project like this is Anderson's voice. This is mostly the Jon we know and love, but his voice often sounds fragile, weak or rough around the edges. My first thought was that this reflects the problems he has had with singing since his acute respiratory failure in 2008. Yet reports from many recent concerts have suggested Anderson is often singing strongly these days. When I listened to Survival and Other Stories, which seems to have been recorded before The Living Tree, the mystery deepened as his voice is much stronger there too. I wonder whether the fragility of Anderson's vocals here does not represent what he is capable of, but is rather to do with what seems to have been a rushed recording process done without using a proper studio?

Listening to The Living Tree and Survival and Other Stories, one change to Anderson's vocals that crosses both of them is a more nasal quality. Listen to "House of Freedom", "Anyway and Always", "Forever" or "Just One Man" and it sounds like Anderson has a bit of a cold and a congested nose. The final track, "Just One Man", has a completely different vocal sound to the rest of The Living Tree. This song alone was not written by Wakeman, but by Jeremy Cubert. It also appears in a different version on Survival and Other Stories, performed by Cubert and others. I wonder whether it is actually the same vocal track on both performances? The comparison between the two versions of the song is interesting, because the larger band on the Survival and Other Stories version, with 'soundscape' by Christophe Lebled, orchestration by Ryan Fraley and viola by Daniel Reinker, works better, I suggest, than Wakeman alone. One is again left with the impression that while the material here is good, it could have been great with more musicians involved.

Likewise, with "House of Freedom", it's a lovely song, a nice composition, well-structured by Wakeman, and Anderson's lyrics work well with the music. Yet the vocals and some of the keyboard sounds mean the piece does not live up to its potential. More musicians, a better production, a bigger production, would these have realised that potential that bubbles under the surface of The Living Tree?

Leaving such hypotheticals aside, this is a good album, one of the best releases we have had from either musician for over a decade. It is the best Wakeman album I have heard in a long time, and I only don't say "the best" about Anderson because of Survival and Other Stories.

This is the first Yes-related release on Gonzo Multimedia. Earlier in 2010, Zeit Distribution Ltd., who traded as Voiceprint, declared insolvency. Gonzo is a phoenix company, established by Voiceprint managing director Rob Ayling and taking over the Voiceprint trading name. (HP, 21 Oct 10)
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