Love In It
Tuck and Patti anchor the Esalen International Arts Festival.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
A Tuck and Patti concert isn’t so much a musical experience as a new age revival meeting celebrating the infinite power of love. Which is to say that the scintillating husband and wife team of guitarist Tuck Andress and vocalist Patti Cathcart is perfectly suited to headline the Esalen International Arts Festival, which brings a dazzling array of performers to the human-potential movement’s birthplace on Wednesday, July 4.
The event is designed as an independence day for the imagination, with vocal, percussion and writing workshops, art exhibits and of course a globe-spanning array of musical acts. Among the performers featured during the all-day festival are vocalist Ysaye Barnwell, best known for her work with Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the Bay Area’s answer to Sweet Honey, the powerhouse African-American vocal group Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir.
Congolese-born dancer Mabiba Baegne leads a dynamic percussion and dance ensemble. Jackeline Rago, a master of percussion and the small four-string quatro, heads the Venezuelan Music Project, a powerful Afro-Venezuelan jazz group. Soul-drenched singer-songwriter Vernon Bush, a featured vocalist with Glide Memorial Church’s celebrated Glide Ensemble, summons the spirit.
Blurring the line between the secular and the sacred is part of what makes Tuck and Patti’s performances so much fun. Over the past three decades, the couple has honed a supple and lively pop jazz sound that perfectly serves their inexorably uplifting message. They’ve created an oeuvre celebrating the romantic, sensual and spiritual dimensions of love.
Talking with the couple from their house in Menlo Park, their easy rapport and intuitive give–and–take comes through clearly as they trade answering questions, at times finishing each other’s thoughts but almost never stepping on each other’s verbal riffs.
“The thread of improvisation runs through everything we do,” says Andress. “Even when the music’s arranged, there’s always this conversation going on. Even songs that we’ve played thousands of times, you really never know what’s going to happen.”
Indeed, part of Tuck and Patti’s success stems from their ability to infuse songs culled from contemporary pop with jazz’s spontaneity. Their repertoire includes far-flung fare such as Laura Nyro’s “Captain for Dark Mornings,” Lieber and Stoller’s “Dance With Me,” Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will” and Al Green’s classic “Let’s Stay Together.”
“The jazz influence comes through because we’re deeply rooted in jazz traditions,” says Cathcart, who was born in San Francisco. “But we’re also products of the ‘60s, so we grew up with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as well as John Coltrane, and all of that winds up in the music. I try to find the essence or the heart of the song, like with ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ To me that was always the most dreamy, passionate tune. You just want to hear those lyrics, they don’t have to be yelled or screamed out.”
Understatement is a hallmark of the Tuck and Patti sound. While their albums often feature saxophone solos and percussion flourishes, if not the backing of a full band, in concert they retain the uncluttered purity of their duo format. It’s a sound that they virtually invented in the late ‘70s, though their initial inspiration came from the classic Pablo duo recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass.
“They were definitely our models, we learned every song on their albums,” Cathcart says.
“But they weren’t even doing it full time,” Andress adds. “They were off doing all kinds of other things and they’d come together to make a record. We found a lot of people who did guitar/vocal duets sometimes, but nobody who just threw themselves heart and soul entirely into this.”
With their original sound, Tuck and Patti quickly gained a dedicated following around the Bay Area in the early ‘80s. They were working constantly, but it was a decade before they made their first album, meanwhile supporting themselves through teaching and performing.
“When we first got together in 1978, we immediately fell in love with the challenge of the duo context,” Cathcart says. “But we also knew we had a long way to go. We really had the luxury and enormous gift of being able to just think about the music. All our friends thought we were insane.”
It turned out they were crazy like foxes. When they finally got around to recording in 1988, their Windham Hill albums arrived just as the smooth jazz radio format coalesced. Their accessible, jazz–influenced sound fit the new niche perfectly, and a national audience soon responded with the same enthusiasm that Bay Area listeners had showered on them for years.
“If we had come out two or three years earlier, people might have said, ‘Well this is great,’ but no one would have heard it,” Cathcart says. “It was one of those remarkable moments when a lot of us rammed through that little space opened by the radio.” Tuck and Patti have been spreading the love ever since.
The Esalen International Arts Festival,
which takes place from July 1-6, presents a day of music on Wednesday at Esalen Institute, 55000 Highway 1, Big Sur. $65. 667-3000 x3950 or esalen.org/workshops/artsfestival07.html.