Nordic Fiddlers Bloc - trio with a full band sound
Kevin Henderson is distraught. His four year old son has acquired a drum and it’s not so much the banging of it that’s causing dad anguish as the fact that the sixteenth size fiddle that Henderson bought to leave lying around the house – temptingly, he hoped –is being neglected.
As one third of the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, as well as a crucial component in two other fiddle groups, Fiddlers Bid and Session A9, the Shetland-born Henderson feels a compulsion to continue the family fiddle tradition, especially since he’s surrounded by strong fiddling traditions in Norway, where he’s been based since 2009.
It was shortly after he moved to Stabbestad in Norway’s Telemark region that Henderson met Swedish fiddler Anders Hall. The two struck up an immediate friendship and a found a natural fiddling rapport, and when Hall introduced Henderson to his Norwegian colleague in the band Sver, Olav Luksengård Mjelva, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc came into being.
“In the Swedish tradition it’s quite common to have two fiddles playing together, with one playing a harmony line to the other’s melody,” says Henderson. “Playing together in Sver had allowed Olav and Anders to develop a good understanding. They both also come from areas that have particularly rich fiddle traditions and to begin with we just really enjoyed jamming together and finding out more about each other’s tune styles. Then we decided to put something more formal together.”
The sound of Henderson laughing comes across the North Sea quite clearly at this comment. Many words have been used to describe the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc as they’ve become established in the UK, across Europe and in the U.S. but formal isn’t one that readily springs to mind. They’re apt to give the impression that their beautifully tempered marshalling of various fiddles and viola happens by accident. Arrangements do sometimes develop a different dimension in performance but much careful consideration lies behind what Henderson refers to as the three of them mucking around.
“It’s funny scrolling through recordings I’ve made of rehearsals on my mobile phone,” says Henderson. “I’ll have as many as forty different versions of one phrase as we’ve worked on getting something just right. We put out the first album reasonably quickly but there’s quite a progression from the first one to the second one and there are tunes on that second one that we worked on for knocking on for a year before we felt we could bring them into the live set.”
Having played with Fiddlers Bid since 1991, when Henderson and his three frontline partners were still at school, he was used to working with other fiddle players. In Fiddlers Bid, however, there has always been a rhythm section – guitar, bass guitar and Catriona McKay alternating between keyboard and harp –creating the grooves. In the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, the fiddlers themselves have to make a strong rhythmical contribution as well as finding their own place in the melodic-harmonic arrangement.
“A lot of people have said that we sound like a string quartet and that’s a great compliment, especially as there’s only three of us,” says Henderson. “I suppose we do have something of that in our approach because Anders plays viola as well as fiddle and Olav’s octave fiddle gives us a cello-esque sound, so we have the range of a string quartet and often it’ll be as much a question of what we leave out as what we put in to make a tune work rhythmically as well as melodically.”
For Henderson, having the sounds of fiddle, viola, octave fiddle and Mjelva’s Hardanger fiddle at his disposal is inspiring as a composer. He’s not the most prolific of tunesmiths and praises Mjelva for contributing half of the tracks on the Bloc’s second album, Deliverance, but being able to hear the Bloc’s collective sound when an idea comes into his head has been a boon.
“Although we’ve been playing together for seven years we’re still at an early stage of the group’s development,” he says. “We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to exploring the three traditions and where we can take tunes, and the notion that there are ways of playing together that we haven’t discovered yet intrigues me. We’re now beginning to put ideas together for the next album and it’ll be interesting to hear how far we’ve moved on between Deliverance and that one.”
Before that third album, there’s a Scottish tour followed by a break and then a trip to Shetland for a pre-Christmas weekend of concerts in Shetland.
“We all have other musical commitments and that can be a good thing,” says Henderson. “It means we go away and spend time doing different things and when we come back we bring new energy and ideas to the music.”
From The Herald, October 27, 2016