Hanneke Cassel has now spent half her life in Boston, and it’s fair to say she has made the most of that time: anchoring Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton sessions in and around the city; performing at venues such as Johnny D’s, Somerville Theater and Club Passim, and in special events like “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” the ICONS (Irish Connections) Festival, BCMFest, and shows with the Childsplay fiddle ensemble; and doing her part to inspire and mentor the next generation of Celtic fiddlers through lessons, workshops, and, especially, the annual Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle Camp.
Oh, and there also have been numerous visits to Walden Pond, including one that turned out to be among the most eventful moments in her life.
Concord’s kettle hole pond, renowned as the site of Henry David Thoreau’s famous two-year retreat, is referenced in the title of Cassel’s newest album, released earlier this year. “A Trip to Walden Pond” also is the name of a Cassel composition that takes up the album’s third track – a typically sparkling, invigorating reel with all the trademarks of the American Scottish style Cassel has helped promote: the elegant, sometimes flamboyant grace that is the mark of classic Scottish fiddle, blended with rhythmic briskness and bluegrass or even jazz-inspired improvisational runs.
Notable on that track, and throughout the album, is the presence of cellist Mike Block, Cassel’s husband of three years. Block – who has quite a distinguished resume himself (he’s part of the Grammy winning Silk Road Ensemble, and has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, among others) – joined Cassel for a concert last month in Harvard Square’s Club Passim, along with their long-time friends Natalie Haas (a pioneering cellist herself) and her husband, guitarist-vocalist Yann Falquet. The evening featured a sampling of Scottish, Scandinavian, Americana and Quebecois music; excerpts from “A Trip to Walden” were part of the set list.
A native of a “tiny” Oregon town, Cassel actually started out playing Texas-style fiddle but gravitated to the Scottish style – especially that of Alasdair Fraser, founder and guiding spirit of California’s Valley of the Moon Fiddle Camp – enough to win the US National Scottish Fiddle Competition in 1997. That was about a year after she had moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, after having met Boston-area musicians like Matt Glaser (a Berklee faculty member) at a fiddle camp, and getting a very positive feel for the place.
Funny enough, Cassel says, she felt closer to Boston’s Irish music scene during her first few years in town. She struck up a partnership with guitarist Brian Hanlon, playing regularly at the Watch City Brewery in Waltham, for instance, and often got together with John McGann, a beloved musician in both the Irish and American music communities who died in 2012.
“Back then, I was really into Liz Carroll and Solas,” she recalls. “I knew all of those tunes, and loved to imitate Liz, and Win [Horan, the Solas fiddler].”
Cassel soon discovered Boston’s vibrant – if sometimes overlooked – Scottish and Cape Breton communities and made herself contentedly at home. But she also continued to soak up the other kinds of music – Americana, Scandinavian, rock, jazz – to be found within the Route 128 belt, and incorporating some of what she heard into her still-evolving sound.
And Cassel certainly ingratiated herself with Boston’s Celtic music lovers, who appreciated not only her fiddling skills but also her outgoing, joyful personality and sense of fun (her ceilidh dance-calling is the stuff of legends).
“Boston is one big fiddle camp,” she says. “I love how you can go from playing strathspeys and marches at, say, the Canadian American Club in Watertown, and then a half-hour later you’re jamming with bluegrass musicians – and, if you’re still up for it, after that you can go find people playing Scandinavian tunes.
“Musicians, especially fiddle players, who spend any amount of time here pick up on the creativity and the ‘hey, let’s do it’ spirit, and take inspiration from what they hear. For that reason, I really think American Scottish music has a Boston accent to it.”
Inspiration is something Cassel taps from occasionally unlikely sources when it comes to writing tunes; her muses have included Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” movie and the historic 2004 Red Sox season. But the title track for the new album truly came from the heart, and the memory of a special day in 2013.
“I love going to Walden Pond – I’ll swim there all day,” she explains. “I really wanted to introduce Mike to it, and we had a few days where we were in town before going back on the road, so went out to Walden and had a great day there together.
“The next day, he proposed. And right afterwards, I started writing the tune.”
As it turned out, Cassel’s next stop after that interlude was a fiddle camp (this one in Germany); over the years, she notes, fiddle camps have tended to serve as an effective sounding board and testing ground for her ideas. Cassel started to mull the outlines of a new album, and what she might do to make this one different than her previous releases.
One of her campmates was Scandinavian musician Antti Järvelä, and she asked him to be her producer. Cassel also envisioned a smaller coterie of supporting musicians for the recording this time around, including not only longtime collaborators like guitarists Keith Murphy and Christopher Lewis, fiddler/violist Jeremy Kittel and pianist Dave Wiesler, but also uilleann piper Samppa Saarinen and Järvelä on guitar and piano.
The content Cassel considered for the album included a number of tunes she had been commissioned or moved to write with a certain purpose or raison d’etre: Some were penned for the benefit of Many Hopes, a Kenyan children’s education non-profit; others commemorate significant passages in the lives of loved ones – weddings, anniversaries, deaths.
“This guy supported Many Hopes by commissioning me to write tunes for his grandchildren,” says Cassel. “e would send me a photo of a grandchild – there were four in all – and I’d come up with a tune, like ‘Artsy Smartsy Phoebe,’ ‘Gretl in the Garden’ and ‘Simon Desilets of St. Louis,’ all of which are on the album.”
As a result, there is often an atmosphere of ceremony, rite or observance, sometimes solemnity, on “A Trip to Walden Pond,” on tunes such as “Carley’s Glenfinnian Wedding” or “De Oppresso Liber,” bringing out the artistic and emotive, even classical, aspects of Cassel’s oeuvre. The interplay between Cassel and Block in particular, whether in duet or harmony, is one of the album’s most powerful elements.
Cassel also left room for nods to Scottish and Cape Breton traditions, including a set that starts out with a strathspey she penned in memory of Cape Breton fiddle master Buddy MacMaster, followed by reels she learned at the feet of another Cape Bretoner, Jerry Holland, at the Boston Harbor camp.
“I had these mini-disk recordings from the early years of the camp, and going through them I found one with Jerry talking to me, and he says, ‘Hanneke, you have to learn these tunes’ and plays them for me. So I just felt I should make a Cape Breton set.”
One of the more energetic tracks on the album opens with the traditional “Captain H. Munro” and segues into Cassel’s “Veronica’s Trip to Sophia Antipolis,” all driven by Murphy’s characteristically punchy rhythm and Block’s continually explorative accompaniment. The closing track is “Coilsfield House,” a slow air composed by Nathaniel Gow (1763-1831) that Cassel, Block, and Lewis mine for all its stateliness and nobility.
“I really wanted to record ‘Coilsfield House,’ because I first heard it through my teacher in Oregon, Carol Ann Wheeler, a very important person in my development as a fiddler,” says Cassel, who has long since taken on the role of teacher herself – and experienced the joy of seeing the dividends from her work.
“It’s very heart-warming to see how some of my students, like Katie McNally, have come into their own and are now established as musicians, and in turn are passing along the music to others. Some of my younger students – including this one group of girls who did practically everything for my wedding – are clearly headed in that direction, too. It’s amazing how that keeps happening, and it’s one of the best things about being in this community.”
For more about Hanneke Cassel, see hannekecassel.com.