Another in a series of features about BCMFest 2016 that will be appearing in this blog right up until the festival (January 8 and 9), so as to better acquaint you with the events, activities and personalities that make up BCMFest. Here is a Q&A with Tommy Sheridan (button accordion) and Rosanne Santucci (piano), who are performing at the festival as the duo Buttons & Keys.
Q: You each came to Irish music from different backgrounds — talk a little about how you started playing.
Tommy: I was born in Boston (Brighton) to parents from Mayo (father) and Tipperary (mother). We had frequent house parties that were usually accompanied by music, primarily accordion and fiddle. My father started me playing a single-row Hohner. My mother had a cousin in Worcester, Bill Holohan, who played fiddle and helped me a lot with tunes and reading. He also gave me a couple of original O’Neill’s books. I also spent three years at the Cambridge Conservatory of Music on piano accordion.
Tommy Sheridan in his glory. (Photo by Sara Piazza)
In my early teens, I started going to the various Irish music clubs flourishing at the time. It was there I leaned to play in a group for dancing, be it waltzes, highlands, polkas, foxtrots, quicksteps and set dances. Playing for step dancers was also part of the night.
The Connacht Ceili Band was started in the mid-60s and I became leader in 1969, taking the band to Ireland twice. We kept it going for 25 years, at which point the years caught up with us. I stopped playing entirely in the mid-90s to spend time in freezing hockey rinks watching my youngest. About 2000, it was Pat Reynolds (drummer), Mike Reynolds (box), and Larry Reynolds Sr. (fiddle) who dragged me back out to sessions and festivals. Playing sessions is very different than playing for an audience or for a dance crowd, so I had to learn all over again.
Rosanne: I came from the classical world, working as a freelance flutist and accompanist. I didn’t start playing Irish music until I was over 40. I liked the little bit I had heard, but (incorrectly) assumed you had to be raised in the tradition to be able to play it, so I never made the attempt — until one day on a whim, I slunk into the Green Briar Pub session in Brighton with my silver flute and was instantly smitten. I’ve immersed myself in the music ever since, picking up a variety of new instruments (primarily Irish flute and uilleann pipes) along the way.
Yes, those are just some of the instruments Rosanne plays — but at BCMFest she’ll be tickling the ivories. (Photo by Sara Piazza)
Q: So then, how did you get together as a duo, and what do you enjoy about playing with one another?
Rosanne: I think I met Tommy at the Green Briar, but our paths would cross at other local sessions. I really admire his wonderful musicianship and his enthusiasm for learning and sharing new tunes. He’s been on the Boston Irish music scene for decades and can he ever tell stories! We only recently started playing box and piano together. Like fiddle and pipes, it’s a combination that works particularly well; the ornamentation and range of the accordion really shine when paired with simple piano backing. And I love having the opportunity to sit back and let Tommy do the hard work of playing the melody!
Tommy: I met Rosanne playing at the sessions, first as a flute player, then as an excellent piper. It was only in the last year that I heard her on the piano. It was quite exhilarating, as I always loved playing with a good pianist. There is something special about the piano, and Rosanne brings out the best in me when providing backing. Most houses and halls had uprights when I was younger and I miss not having their sound. Rosanne is quite able to quickly pick up the correct chords when I decide to play something weird. She’s very easy to get long with: She’d have to be when I go off on one of my tangents.
Q: We know Irish music has a long history in Boston, going back generations. Do you think Boston’s brand of Irish music has a special sound, a style, a “vibe” that makes it different from Irish music in other locales?
Tommy: Looking at “Boston” Irish music from the inside, I am not able to judge what a Boston “vibe” would be. However, from feedback I’ve gotten from outsiders who stop at our sessions, I can say that we are known for quality, open sessions where people are welcomed and it is encouraged that all egos are left at the door.
In past times, it was the accordion and fiddle that prevailed, backed by piano and occasionally with a flute or two. The dance bands, pre-showbands, would have horns and standup bass in addition to accordion and fiddle. I’m just making a distinction between session music and dance music. I would say that today’s Boston music is being influenced by a number of pipers. The accordion has been replaced in many senses by the pipes. And aren’t most accordion players wanna-be pipers anyway? We are also lucky in having Berklee and other college students who bring their inputs to the sessions.
Q: Although you’re obviously immersed in Irish music, your repertoire also includes tunes from Scottish and Cape Breton traditions. How is that you came to incorporate these kinds of tunes in your music?
Tommy: My interest in Cape Breton music goes way back to listening to Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald on records and on the radio. Our piano player in the Connacht Ceili Band was Sally MacEachern Kelly from Cape Breton and she played both the Irish and Cape Breton style. Whenever any of the leading Cape Breton players would come to Boston, we’d have great all night sessions at Kelly’s. Among the greats were Angus Chisholm, Bill Lamey, Winnie Chafe, Dougie MacPhee, John Allen Cameron, and many others. When I was in my early teens I played at dances and on weekly radio with Sy Fisher and his Cape Breton dance band. Scottish music was discovered through the recordings of expert accordion players Will Starr and Jimmy Shand.
Q: Who have been some of the most important people for you — teachers, mentors, bandmates, etc. — during your time as an Irish musician?
Rosanne: There are many! To name a few, piper Patrick Hutchinson and flute players Shannon Heaton and James Hamilton, who have given me invaluable guidance in both style and technique. And the Boston session leaders over the years who welcomed me into the Irish music family — Frank Horrigan, Tara Lynch, Sean Connor, Liam Hart, Mike Reynolds, Terry Weir, John Gannon, Joey Abarta, and of course Tommy (apologies to anyone I’ve inadvertently left out).
Tommy: Among many influences on my playing include Joe Derrane, Paddy O’Brien (Tipperary), Joe Burke, Martin McDonagh (Walpole and Connemara), Raymond Roland, fiddle player Andy MCGann, and multi-instrument master Jimmy Kelly. Among my current favorites is Annette Owens. I also have to give Larry Reynolds Sr., Michael Reynolds, and Paddy Reynolds credit for getting me back playing.