After four decades, eclectic Bay Area guitar-and-vocal duo Tuck & Patti have got their act together — to the point of not planning.
“We haven’t made set lists in years and years, I keep it open and free,” says singer-arranger Patti Cathcart, mentioning that they’ll be taking requests during their Feinstein’s at the Nikko debut in The City this week.
Even though she’s sung “My Romance” thousands of times, it’s always new, she says: “Even our original songs don’t stay static.”
Her husband Tuck Andress says of their sound: “We’re playing from our hearts, being honest, having a conversation with each other. I liken it to ballroom dancing… on a tightrope.”
Through the years, they’ve become deeper and more nuanced, yet their unique “naked” style — a mix of jazz, folk, soul and blues — clicked from the start.
They met in 1978 at an audition in San Francisco for a band that lasted just two months. Patti’s first impression: “I just want to steal their guitar player” and Tuck’s: “I met my musical soulmate.”
They weren’t romantic at the outset. They got together and played in Patti’s living room in Mountain View, finding freedom in the minimal format and their mutual extensive musical backgrounds.
“We’d do Ellington and Jimi, rock, blues and gospel; we could mix it up because we were a duo,” says Patti, calling the style unusual and different at the time, and “Ella [Fitzgerald] and Joe [Pass]” as one of the few sort-of comparable acts.
Knowing they wouldn’t fit in the top 40 mold, they boldly found gigs at Peninsula bars, and later started recording. Their 1988 Windham Hill Records debut “Tears of Joy,” of covers and originals by Patti, is still a favorite.
They’ve released about a dozen records, which they’ve made themselves, and haven’t had issues with major labels or the music industry.
“We’ve shape-shifted out way through the business,” says Patti, adding that even though the mainstream scene is about making oneself over, they haven’t had to: “With just the two of us, there’s not a lot of reinventing to do. We’re like those people that sit in the village and carve little dolls.”
More recently, they’ve produced and recorded for others, starting in 2010 by mixing an album for Just Duet, a guitarist and vocalist from Italy.
“Mixing is fun,” says Tuck, as he mentions their mentor Howard Johnston of Different Fur Studios in San Francisco.
Working from their studio in Menlo Park, where they’ve lived for nearly 30 years (“We bought our house in 1991, thank God,” Patti says), they since have collaborated on producing projects with artists including soprano Denise Young, jazz vocalist Sam Fazio, producer-arranger Frank Martin and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
“We worked on our own dream for so long, it’s equally satisfying to help somebody else figure out what their dream is and help them achieve it,” says Tuck, whose family gave him the Little Tommy Tucker/Friar Tuck-inspired nickname when he was a crying, chubby tot.
Married since 1981, Tuck & Patti’s personal and professional lives are inextricably intertwined. Just once, they spent three weeks apart, when she went to a spa and he recorded an album.
Having learned early on to deal with conflict as it arises, they also have a method for making decisions: “When it comes to music production, I’m going to defer to Patti; but loading the dishwasher, I have a certain way I do it,” Tuck says.
Touring for about six months each year (they actually spend only about 8 percent of their time playing concerts, the rest is devoted to ancillary tasks, Tuck once calculated), they remain grateful to be making their living doing what they love.
Pointing to the overwhelming state of the world today — “climate change, children dying and getting snatched from their families, people judging each other by the color of their skin” — Patti also is glad to offer hope: “When we walk onstage, that says it all: The possibility of love is real, and it is here.”
IF YOU GO
Tuck & Patti
Where: Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15-16
Tickets: $50 to $85
Contact: (866) 663-1063, www.ticketfly.com