“I loved Weather Report and Herbie Hancock. I was coming from that area,” says Ric Sanders, fiddle player for Fairport Convention, of his longtime affinity for jazz. “But I’d always loved folk music for the instrument I played. It was a delightful shock when I got a call from Fairport. When I went in to rehearse with the guys, I already knew all the instrumentals. I had learned them for fun.”
It’s difficult to imagine how many musicians wanted to fill the coveted fiddler slot when the legendary British folk rock band Fairport Convention came off hiatus in 1985. It’s not difficult, though, to understand why the slot previously filled by the much-honored Dave Swarbrick (Swarb to his friends) went to Sanders.
From the time he was a teenager and first heard The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and “the jazzy end of progressive rock,” he became a serious student of music, teaching himself fiddle.
“I was fifteen and The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and then Magical Mystery Tour. When I heard the song ‘Fool on the Hill’ I just wanted to be a part of it,” says Sanders. “When you are fifteen, you think you can change the world with love. That’s when I became a vegetarian, too, and took my first steps toward being a musician.”
Armed with an old student fiddle his family owned, though “no one in the family particularly played it,” a small record player that had various rotation options, and a host of records, many of which his father had collected during World War II, Sanders threw himself into music.
“I was immediately attracted to the fiddle. Records were my teacher,” he says. “I loved folk and I always loved [the traditional Irish band] The Chieftains, but that was never where my strength lay. Then I got drawn into experimenting with music and sound and I liked freaky noises. I remember getting an album by the [experimental rock band] United States of America, led by Joseph Byrd, and I just loved it.”
Yet his preference, perhaps fueled by the records his father entrusted to him, still leaned toward jazz. After just a few years of teaching himself to play, Sanders toured with Stomu Yamashta’s Red Buddah Theatre, which formed in 1971 in Japan and then performed in London and France the next year. That led to his work as a jazz soloist and various collaborations before he found himself the fiddler with both The Albion Band (a sister band to Fairport Convention) and prog-rockers Soft Machine. Sanders also formed his own jazz groups, in which he still plays, though he has been the full-time fiddler with Fairport since 1985.
“I was never hampered by classical training,” he says, noting that while working at a well-known English music shop in Birmingham, the renowned fiddler Michael Burnham showed him various fiddle techniques. “I always heard different sounds in my head. I heard a blues harp or soprano saxophone and I could play along. When I joined Soft Machine I was recruited to play fiddle after the sax. That made sense to me. The sax or blues harmonica, in a way, influenced me more than fiddle players. With folk, though, I still consider myself an enthusiastic amateur.”
One person who would disagree with that modest self-assessment is Chris Leslie, Fairport’s multi-instrumentalist and principal songwriter. Leslie was captivated by the music his siblings brought home on records and was especially enchanted by Swarb’s playing in Fairport.
Although he played a great deal from a young age—making his own record at age sixteen—he graduated from the rigorous program at the Newark School of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire, England, intending to make that his full-time career. An invitation from Swarb to join Whippersnapper, the master violinist’s acoustic folk quartet, ultimately changed his mind. When Whippersnapper ended, Leslie joined The Albion Band and soon received a call from Fairport. Although playing in the band was his dream, he didn’t see how he could fit into the line-up as a fiddle player.
If Sanders had his way, all Fairport songs would have two fiddlers. He proposed just that when Leslie agreed to join the band in 1997, after guitarist Maartin Allcock left the group.
“That was lovely,” says Leslie. “But I thought what I would do is find my way into the band with mandolin and bouzouki and occasionally a duet with Ric.”
Although Sanders and Leslie are too modest to say so publicly, anyone who has attended a Fairport Convention concert knows that the fiddle duets are a highlight.
“It is fascinating that our styles are very different but when we play together it is very easy. He never had to fit in with me and I never had to fit in with him. Our styles just mix so well that they seem to occupy different spaces [but] when they come together, they seem to fit,” says Leslie. “It’s joyous to play together because we are both exactly ourselves.”
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Summer 2013 issue!]
[Nancy Dunham is an award-winning music journalist who lives in Washington, D.C. She can be contacted at email@example.com.]
Photo: Kirstie Handley