When I phoned Billy McComiskey to tell him that he was the Irish Echo’s Traditional Artist of the Year for 2011, he replied, “Why? I didn’t do anything in 2011.”
That humility about his own prodigious accomplishments every year is one of many reasons why the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore resident button accordionist and composer has earned this highest and most coveted annual accolade from the Irish Echo for traditional music.
Since 1993, the Irish Echo has honored these 16 musicians and two radio hosts with its “Traditional Artist of the Year” award: Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane (a two-time recipient, 1995 and 2010), Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, John Whelan, Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Kevin Crawford, Seamus Connolly, Mike Rafferty, Andy McGann (posthumous), Monsignor Charlie Coen, WFUV-FM’s Kathleen Biggins and WGBH-FM’s Brian O’Donovan (co-recipients for 2006), Micheal O Suilleabhain, Brian Conway, and John Doyle.
Is there any devotee of Irish traditional music who thinks Billy McComiskey doesn’t belong on that Olympian list?
Despite his protestation, McComiskey had a standout 2011. He appears on the best new Christmas album I’ve heard in several years, “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” (Irish Arts Center/NYC), and has just concluded a 14-show run of “An Irish Christmas” in the Donaghy Theater of Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center, where he was nothing less than brilliant. With customary distinction he taught the button accordion at the 2011 Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, N.Y. With self-effacing grace he supported and touted the album “Crabs in the Skillet” by the impressive Old Bay Ceili Band, whose members include his gifted button accordion-playing son, Sean, and whose CD features one of Billy’s compositions, the jig “Poor Timing.” And he wrote an insightful, thought-provoking short essay for the album “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” by Dan Gurney, a highly skillful button accordionist to whom Billy gave lessons when Gurney was seven.
Does all that sound like someone who “didn’t do anything in 2011”?
By overwhelming critical and popular consensus, only two U.S.-born musicians currently occupy the loftiest level of button accordion mastery in the U.S.: Joe Derrane, America’s greatest D/C# box player who is a 2004 National Heritage Fellowship winner, and Billy McComiskey, America’s greatest B/C box player who is the 1986 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion. As Derrane once told me: “When Billy plays, he makes us all proud of our Irish-American heritage.”
Like Derrane, McComiskey over the decades has been pivotal in shattering the long-term, stereotypical, distorted perception of the button accordion as an inferior, obnoxious instrument. He has raised the profile and stature of the button accordion through the sheer luminosity of his playing. Other button accordionists in America and Ireland owe him a huge debt for helping to resuscitate an instrument that never deserved to be put on a ventilator. Every note he plays on the box proves it belongs side by side with the fiddle and flute in both dexterity and prestige. Billy McComiskey makes the accordion sing.
His achievements in 2011 and in previous years constitute a formidable resume of music-making.
They include two exquisite solo albums (“Makin’ the Rounds” in 1981 and “Outside the Box,” the Irish Echo’s top trad recording for 2008), three influential albums with the Irish Tradition (“Catchin’ the Tune” in 1975, “The Corner House” in 1978, and “The Times We’ve Had” in 1985), two stirring albums with Trian (“Trian” in 1992 and “Trian II” in 1995), and “Pride of New York” (the Irish Echo’s top trad recording for 2009).
Billy McComiskey uses two B/C button accordions in performance now: a four-voice Saltarelle Tara and a rare, four-voice, gray Paolo Soprani. The latter previously belonged to his mentor and friend, Tynagh-born Sean McGlynn (1937-1983). By playing it, Billy keeps the memory of McGlynn tactilely alive.
So far, McComiskey has composed about 30 tunes, and a number of them have seeped into the repertoire of other musicians. Among his most popular compositions are “The Controversial Reel,” “Ohm’s Law” jig, “The Flowers of Brooklyn” reel, “Sleepless Nights” waltz, and “Sean McGlynn’s” jig.
During this year and prior years, Billy McComiskey has honored us with great playing and relentless nurturing of the best within Irish traditional music. Today, Dec. 21, the day he turns 60, the Irish Echo fittingly honors him. Irish America never had a better musical standard-bearer than Billy McComiskey, the Irish Echo’s Traditional Artist of the Year for 2011. Congratulations, Billy, and happy birthday.
Top 40 Irish traditional albums of 2011
Chosen from hundreds of recordings received during 2011, and in acknowledgment that a number of others were not received in time for review or consideration here, these 40 stellar recordings make excellent holiday gifts and belong in the home library of every Irish traditional music lover. As always, I stick my critic’s neck out and rank them in order of preference. Only the top ten have been annotated by me.
(1) “How to Tune a Fish” by Beoga (Compass): breathtaking virtuosity, unflagging energy, and inventive risk-taking from a unique quintet charting fresh territory.
(2) “Ego Trip” by MacDara O Raghallaigh (Laracor): Rathmolyon, Meath, fiddler, unaccompanied and live, delivers a solo debut that’s the single best fiddle album of the year.
(3) “Shadow and Light” by John Doyle (Compass): Dublin-born Doyle’s third and finest solo CD reveals a singer, guitarist, and composer in dazzling command of his music.
(4) “Deadly Buzz” by Mick O’Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh (Irish Music Net): superb, eagerly awaited follow-up to the supreme “Kitty Lie Over” album in 2003 by this inspired uilleann piper and fiddler.
(5) “In Retrospect” by Danny O’Mahony (www.dannyomahony.com): the 1996 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion from Ballyduff, Kerry, makes a stunning solo debut.
(6) ”Island Treasures” by Marcus Hernon and Johnny Connolly (Feenish Sound): grandfathered from 2010, this recording by the Connemara flutist and melodeonist offers a turf-scented bounty from the simplest of settings: Hernon’s living room.
(7) “Flagstone Memories” by Jim Higgins, Orla Harrington, and Andrew Mac Namara (www.andrewmacnamara.com, www.orlaharrington.com): Clare dance music from a trio who know how to bring out its full vigor and flavor: Higgins on percussion and piano, Harrington on fiddle, and Mac Namara on button accordion.
(8) “Foxlight” by Iarla O Lionaird (Real World): the finest sean-nos singer in Ireland today, this Cork native invited a dozen instrumentalists and one other vocalist to help him make a drop-dead gorgeous CD of his singing.
(9) “Country Crossroads: The Nashville Sessions” by Cherish the Ladies (Big Mammy): Ireland’s and Irish America’s vibrant tradition meets Music City USA for one of CTL’s most accomplished albums ever.
(10) “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” by Dan Gurney (www.dangurney.net): the 24-year-old Harvard graduate from Rhinebeck, N.Y., drinks deeply from the pure drop of trad on a solo debut establishing him firmly as a fast-rising talent to watch.
(11) “And So the Story Goes” by Sean Tyrrell, Kevin Glackin, and Ronan Browne (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).
(12) “Small Towns and Famous Nights” by the Alan Kelly Gang (Blackbox).
(13) “Lost River: Vol. 1” by Daithi Sproule (New Folk).
(14) “Idir” by At First Light (www.atfirstlight.net).
(15) “Bits ’N’ Pieces” by Donal McCague (www.bitsnpieces2011.com).
(16) “The Boys of the Town” by Paul McGlinchey (www.flutemcglinchey.com).
(17) “At Complete Ease” by John Carty and Brian Rooney (Racket).
(18) “A Sweeter Place” by Girsa (RiverRollick).
(19) “Millhouse Measures” by Raw Bar Collective (www.rawbarcollective.com).
(20) “Crabs in the Skillet” by the Old Bay Ceili Band (www.oldbayceiliband.com).
(21) “In the Shadow” by Brendan Begley (www.brendanbegley.com).
(22) “Jig Away the Donkey” by Gerry O’Connor, Gabriel McArdle, and Martin Quinn (Lughnasa).
(23) “Na Fir Bolg” by Jack Talty and Cormac Begley (Raelach).
(24) “Joshua’s Dream” by Johnny Og Connolly (www.johnnyogconnolly.com).
(25) “The Old Wheel of Fortune” by Fidil (www.fidilmusic.com).
(26) “Ceol Sidhe” by Micheal O hEidhin, Steve Cooney, and Charlie Lennon (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).
(27) “Bosca Ceoil and Fiddle” by Cathal Clohessy and Eamonn Costello (www.boscaceoilandfiddle.com).
(28) “Lumiere” by Eilis Kennedy and Pauline Scanlon (www.lumieretheband.com).
(29) “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole” by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna (www.danalynmusic.com).
(30) “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley” by the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra (www.wshso.wordpress.com).
(31) “Halcyon Days” by Sean McCarthy (Halcyon).
(32) “T with the Maggies” by Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, and Moya Brennan (Compass).
(33) “Cliabhan An Duchais” by Brid O’Donohue and Family (www.bridodonohue.com).
(34) “The Wishing Well” by Michelle O’Brien and Laoise Kelly (www.laoisekelly.ie).
(35) “Echoes of Sliabh Luachra” by Billy Clifford (e-mail: email@example.com).
(36) “Teanga Na nGael” by Grainne Holland (www.grainneholland.com).
(37) “II” by Guidewires (www.guidewiresmusic.com).
(38) “Songs of the Scribe” by Padraigin Ni Uallachain (Ceoltai Eireann).
(39) “Green Grass Blue Grass” by the Brock McGuire Band (Paulman; available Feb. 28, 2012, on Compass).
(40) “Nuair a Theid Se Fan Chroi” by Maire Ni Choilm (Clo Iar-Chonnacht).
Best holiday album of 2011: “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration” (Irish Arts Center/NYC).
Best archival album of 2011: “Seancheol Ar An Seannos” by Peadar O Lochlainn and Aggie Whyte (Spol/Na Piobairi Uilleann; six tracks originally recorded in 1963).
Best non-Irish roots album of 2011: “Old Brooklyn” by Andy Statman (Shefa; two-disc release).
Best sources for all of the above-named recordings: Copperplate Consultants (Alan O’Leary, proprietor), 68, Belleville Rd., London SW11 6PP, England, UK, www.copperplateconsultants.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 011-44-207-585-0357, and Ossian USA (Charlie Clarke and Mary Lou Philbin, proprietors), 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307, www.ossianusa.com, email@example.com, 603-783-4383.