IMAGINE TRACY Chapman.
Now forget her for a minute and in your mind's ear hear the deep, superlative voices of jazz divas Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Mix them with Tracy Chapman. Now, instead of Chapman's folk guitar filigree, imagine great jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel.
Put it all together and that, more or less, is what Tuck and Patti sound like.
Up to now, they have been the kind of wild, cult enthusiasm and ill-kept jazz secret that Bobby McFerrin was before wine cooler commercials and "Don't Worry, Be Happy" exploded him into the American musical mainstream.
They are that good -- almost. Where McFerrin is a one-man fiesta of sound and improvisation, Tuck and Patti are a spellbinding tribute to the power of musical romanticism. Everything they sing -- standards, Jimi Hendrix songs, whatever -- turns into prime Tuck and Patti.
Their history suggests that they can mesmerize any size venue. Even in their ragtag early days, noisy audiences have never been a problem.
The sensitivity of their music, says guitarist Tuck Andress, "always shuts people up. In a way, it's like watching a tightrope walker. We're up there so naked that the audience is always wondering, will we make it?"
They'll make their first Buffalo appearance Friday evening in the Marquee at the Tralf as one of the club's final big-name performances before closing its national name schedule for the summer.
In addition to their riveting sensitivity and quiet but ferocious swing, Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart are married in life -- not always the best proposition for a professional duo who might be in danger of carrying garden-variety marital tensions onstage. That never happens, they say.
Not only that, says Patti, the music takes care of whatever tensions may develop. When you have to go onstage and perform music in which nuance is all, she says, "There's no such thing as, 'I'm not going to talk about it.' "
Tuck and Patti, in fact, have no set act. Patti calls the tunes and they're whatever she feels like singing at that moment.
To hear her tell it, she knew she was going to be a singer at age 6.
She learned "My Romance" from a Sammy Davis Jr. record and listened to Pearl Bailey at an age when most kids are looking forward to their next Popsicle.
She played classical violin for years and still loves the classical violin repertoire. And Tuck played classical piano.
But there is where the story gets uncommonly interesting.
Patti Cathcart is blisteringly frank about the difficulties young female singers have in jazz. Along the way, she is willing to share some harsh and seldom-considered truths about women who are usually considered saints of jazz song -- women like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter.
"I don't think jazz has welcomed new younger singers in years the way it has embraced new young instrumentalists. Many jazz singers have been forced economically to do something different."
She mentions Anita Baker, for instance, as a singer who might have become a pure jazz singer rather than an R & B/jazz crossover artist if anyone at all had given her the necessary encouragement.
Unlike such major jazz instrumentalists as Miles Davis and Art Blakey, who run unofficial jazz universities for such figures as John Coltrane, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, etc., the only female singer who has taken young woman singers "publicly under her wing," says Patti, is Nancy Wilson.
"Most of us have a bereft feeling because none of us have been embraced by these singers who've been our idols. So most of us won't get a chance. You don't see Ella or Sarah or Betty Carter or Carmen McCrae bringing up young singers. I don't know. Maybe it's because women aren't given as many slots. So there's much more competition."
What happened between Washington and her young worshiper Wilson, says Patti, is the kind of "passing the torch" that ought to be taking place among female jazz singers.
Tuck and Patti's record label -- Windham Hill -- has been both a curse and a blessing. The curse is there are still far too many people who think that everything on the label is white-wine-and-cheese new age music -- somnolent stuff that can be cut up and parceled out any old way for background music.
On the other hand, Windham Hill has left them alone to make records their own way. It has also given them a built-in audience of people willing to sample almost any music they find on the label.
"We don't love everybody on the label," admits Patti. But, says Tuck, "It enabled us to sell a lot of records right out of the box."
To put it mildly, vocal-guitar jazz duos are unusual. In fact, Tuck and Patti are it, at the moment.
"There's something so magical about the duo for us," says Tuck, that they seldom if ever miss playing without a rhythm section.
In fact, that's Tuck Andress' whole history as a struggling young guitarist -- he was playing in bands and trying to figure out technical things that would compensate for the absence of other players. In musician's terms, it has given him formidable "chops" -- not entirely unlike his fellow San Franciscan Stanley Jordan.
At this stage of their careers, a lot of things have to be put on hold.
Says Tuck, "Patti's a great producer and arranger," but she hasn't yet had a chance to prove it on record. Nor has Tuck had a chance to sit in much with other jazz musicians, no matter how much he'd like.
Says Patti, "We averaged three days a month at home last year. Our basic time off has always been to go home and make records."
Too bad, of course. But, then again, they're superb records.