How much of what you do is improvised?
Patti: On the structural level it varies. We have a joint commitment to go with spirit, wherever it leads us, even on the gross level, and even if it doesn't work. That works out to mean different things on different songs. One chorus of "I've Got Just About Everything" will probably always have 64 bars, but I might change melody and even lyrics, or add a chorus of solo, while Tuck would freely improvise bass lines and chords, substituting and reharmonizing around me, and varying whatever countermelodies he incorporated, just as any jazz group would. This is also true of most of the ballads we do, although at times I'll intentionally leave out a section if it feels right; Tuck typically catches this and goes right with me. On other songs the structure of some sections might change every night, even segueing into different songs.
For example, the out section of "Tears Of Joy" was completely improvised in the studio when we were recording; each take was completely different, with different chords, melody and words. After the CD came out, we actually went back and learned what we did on the particular take we decided to use. Many of our songs are like that. When we play live, the same kind of thing will happen. On a given song we might stay with a particular form for a while until one or the other of us goes off in another direction one night, then that alternative form becomes a new theme for variation in the future.
Sometimes we'll make up an entirely new song on the spot during shows (this is how "High Heel Blues" and "Love Is The Key" got started), but one result of having albums is that people have more favorite songs than there is time in a show to do them, so this happens less than in the past.
On the detail level, it is almost all improvised; nothing is locked in. My phrasing is always changing, as are the details of Tuck's playing, even on songs we've played literally thousands of times or songs with carefully constructed arrangements. We agreed long ago always to do this so the music always stays fresh, and it works. This approach comes from our both growing up listening to and playing jazz, gospel, blues, etc., where improvisation and going with the feeling of the moment was the whole point, more important than delivering a polished version. It is also the natural result of there being only two of us, so our performances can be more conversational than if there were a big band which would have to be more organized. To be a duo and not engage in group improvisation would be crazy; it would be missing out on a tremendous part of the potential.
A few years ago for a commercial we recorded a song together, live in the studio, as we always do, then I had to go back and sing it again in several other languages, singing to the original guitar track Tuck had recorded when we recorded as a duo. It was the weirdest experience, as if I were carrying on a conversation with someone who was not listening to me. It completely surprised me, because I had not realized how constantly we respond to each other instinctively and instantly all the time, back and forth. It is automatic, reflexive behavior, just like in dancing, and to suddenly rigidly lock in Tuck's response to me was completely unnatural and disconcerting. Of course, this is how most recording is done today, but for us the conversation has always been the thing.
Tuck: I'm not sure whether this is philosophical, psychological, realistic or just wishful thinking, but my experience is that even when I play the same thing twice, it still feels like I'm improvising. I don't successfully memorize, either music or hand motions. I believe it comes largely from my practice approach and musical philosophy: Musically I have spent most of my energy working on options and variations rather than polishing just one version, and on playing what I hear rather than what I practiced yesterday. Therefore songs themselves become ever more complex branching networks of possible ways of getting from point A to point B four or eight bars later. It is as if the theme just becomes another of the variations.
Technically my emphasis has been on exploring as many alternate fingerings as I could find and using alternative right hand approaches to open up textures and feels. As a result, I don't develop specific finger memory to help me play a song the same way each time, or to help me get back if I get lost. This means I might play a song with identical voicings several times in a row, as if it were a memorized arrangement with only subtle phrasing variations, because I hear it that way each time, then one night something Patti does or something inside me causes me to hear and branch off to a completely different harmonization. Naturally she responds automatically in kind, and we are off to some unexplored territory, on a track parallel to the normal version. Since I just play what I hear and I'm currently hearing something different, I don't even have access to the version I played the previous night or several nights in a row. And I don't have a memorized chart scrolling in my head to compare to. But the basic form still remains intact underneath.
Another way of saying this is that Tuck might space out at any moment, so watch out! Seriously, though, in an age of fake books, jazz by analysis and results-oriented rather than process-oriented teaching, I believe what I am describing is nothing more than the way jazz musicians used to learn a tune by ear, never necessarily even knowing the "correct" changes, and then automatically be able to play it the first time equally well in any key, simply by following as the ear leads. There is a natural inevitability to the way chords lead from points of stability to points of tension to points of resolution, so it is irrelevant to memorize any of them; just follow your ear as it leads you. With this way of learning, you only need to memorize any peculiarities, typically no more than a few per song. This way of hearing is what makes it possible for a player to sit in, playing unfamiliar songs and still catching most of it as it goes by.
The great benefit of this approach is that it leads to a less rigid, more musical experience. The risk is that, with no scrolling mental chart as insurance, there is a greater danger of getting so lost that you never find your way back to the song. We have agreed to define this as a good thing when it happens. Our medley of "Castles Made Of Sand" and "Little Wing" was born of an experience like this. We used to play only "Castles Made Of Sand." We had never played "Little Wing." One night while playing the guitar solo I heard something, went with it and pretty soon had completely forgotten what song I had been playing. As I kept playing, Patti eventually realized that it sounded like I was playing "Little Wing." Rather than wait for me to work my way out of the mess, she started singing "Little Wing." I didn't really know the song, so I followed her. When it came time for another guitar solo, it somehow worked its way back to "Castles" again. We forgot to discuss it at the end of the night. Usually the next night things would gravitate back to normal, but I took a similar detour two or three nights running, and we had a medley, although the transition varied a lot for a long time.
Tuck: Performing with Patti is like no other experience I have had, because it is so intense. The closest thing I've experienced is race car video games, when you keep the accelerator floored and life comes at you faster than you can possibly deal with, except that crashing and burning is not an acceptable option and there is no slowing down and catching your breath when you do crash and burn. It is relentlessly this way for an hour and a half. It is like simultaneously being in the eye of the hurricane and in the hurricane itself, except that we are also generating the hurricane rather than passively experiencing it. It seems that there are multiple time scales being experienced all at once. Perhaps there is a similar experience when one is negotiating dangerous rapids. It is remarkable to me that it is possible to experience calmness, peace and joy in the midst of very intense, rapid activity, much of which has to do with disaster avoidance and damage control, but it seems to be the nature of the mind that these can coexist.
So on the detail level I am experiencing a myriad of unarticulated decisions, seized opportunities, missed opportunities, roadblocks, detours, emergencies, solutions, contingency plans, etc., with my universe additionally being in a constant state of earthquake due to the happily unpredictable nature of Patti. This happens on the millisecond level, with seemingly countless different events each second.
On top of this is an overlay of conscious mental activity, some of it superfluous (constantly asked question of how my balance is with Patti and how is the balance between the bass, each voice of the chord, the top note and the percussive subtext; that was great, remember it for the future; you missed that harmonic again, it's over, so quit judging yourself, you're falling out of the moment; I was about to get back in the moment when you reminded me; how do I know if I'm in the moment?; oh no, I just landed on my second finger when it should have been the first, so how am I going to execute the next note that I'm already swinging at which just has to be there because of what Patti's in the process of doing).
It is for this detail level that I practice so hard, because without a lot of automatic translating of things I hear and feel into finger moves, I wouldn't have a chance of keeping it together. Wes Montgomery used to say that playing in octaves and block chords instead of single lines gave him headaches because there was so much going by so fast. I am lucky that this does not happen to me, but I think I know what he meant. This compressed time scale part of the experience does not exist in normal life except for brief moments.
At the same time I experience a musical flow on the time scale of breathing (seconds), with the rise and fall of dynamics and emotions in the music. At this level there are the accompanying, unavoidable thoughts, almost all guaranteed to be superfluous, such as body awareness (am I standing up straight; there is hair in my eye; I'm hungry) and mental musings (Patti is sure looking good; I wonder what the volume of this room is in cubic meters, how much air that gives each person, how much of that is actually used, how many cubic inches of air flow per minute would be necessary to give sufficient fresh air exchange to keep everybody going indefinitely and what duct size and fan speed would be required; what time do we fly out tomorrow and how much sleep will that give me; I wonder what a given audience member is experiencing). As in meditation, I just let these come and go, like the background noise floor of consciousness. Of course, in between these two time scales are a whole variety of intermediate scales.
I do not tend to consciously experience much emotional variety while performing, in contrast to Patti. It's as if I don't have time for this. It's more a consistent, overriding sense that, gee, I'm glad to be doing this right now. I think most of my emotions are taking place on the millisecond level, related to all the microevents that are taking place, and that each is replaced by the next so fast that there is no opportunity to reflect on the experience. I am aware that sometimes powerful emotion comes through the music, even when I play solo guitar, and I see this as evidence that divine activity can take place through the medium of humans who are busy doing their work.
Another level of experience would be the realm of transcendent experiences, of being transported somewhere else, of seeing things on other planes than the material one, etc. I hear about these (often from Patti) but very seldom experience them; that does not seem to be my role.
As to involvement with lyrics, they are very important to me when we are learning a song, but when we are playing I am responding to sounds I hear Patti make, with the verbal side of my brain turned off. Occasionally I will get to enjoy the meaning of a phrase, but usually this coincides with my forgetting where I am the next moment.
One other factor that intensifies all this is our use of in-ear monitors, which are psychologically very powerful. The result of these is that everything but Patti and me disappears while we are playing, which is as it should be. Our music temporarily becomes the entire universe to us, and in our role as creators, maintainers and destroyers of that fragile universe the seeming importance of everything is intensified. So, for example, when I dance through what I experience as the joyful minefield of any ballad at a non-negotiable rate of hundreds or thousands of events per minute, every single note has a potential range from global catastrophe (being missed, played out of tune, played too loud or with too harsh a tone), to trivial event (played slightly out of balance or time with Patti), all the way to exultant and transcendant, universally shared experience for all life forms (played just right, perfect blend with Patti). You don't get the latter without risking the former. I experience all this as mattering during the moment of doing it as much as I experience anything mattering in life, having almost life and death importance. Additionally the in-ear monitors allow us to hear details that would be lost with regular monitoring, so the importance of all the subtleties is magnified even more.
At every moment there is a continuous giving up of what happened the previous moment. Of course, the minute we stop playing there is a transition back to ordinary consciousness in which it all becomes a vague memory of a very intense and enjoyable experience we had together, and it goes right back to being no more important than anything else, which is also as it should be.
The transition between the two states of normal life and performing is an interesting one which we've had a lot of opportunity to study. For me, normal life continues until the moment we play the first note, at which point it is like somebody just turned on the warp drive. It is absolutely discontinuous. There is no gradually getting into it; it is simply a new reality suddenly replacing the old reality. I no longer get nervous or go into any altered state prior to performing, although I find it helpful not to converse too much with anybody. Warming up just prior to going on is a good thing but no longer particularly necessary, since I've had to go on cold so many times, and since Patti and I agreed early on that she would never refrain from calling a challenging song just because it was the first song of the night.
Compared to all other playing situations I have experienced, I would say that our nightly experience is similar but orders of magnitude more intensified. Heightening this is the duo nature of the performance, which means that there can be no letup of intensity or concentration for the entire duration.
Although I have virtually no experience to base this on, having been basically straight all my life, I have no doubt that there is no way to experience such a state through the use of drugs or alcohol, and that to perform intoxicated or high would simply not work.
Tuck: I love questions like this. I used to ponder such things a lot. Now I have come to a sense of clarity about this. When we are playing together, I play almost exclusively for Patti. It is as if nothing else exists. I have come to the conclusion that by doing so, I am properly playing for God and for the audience. I used to attempt to actively remember God, pray or have some type of divine thoughts while playing. It turned out that this was a distraction from doing what I was supposed to do, which was to lose myself in the music as an act of devotion to God. Since the music I play is a very detailed personal interaction with Patti, it is appropriate for her to be my whole focus.
The sense in which I play for myself is on a very detailed level that no one would ever know about; I think of it as the realm of whim. Almost constantly there are multiple options for ways to create the same sound (alternate fingerings or picking patterns), or there are equally good musical choices at a given moment (details of a voicing, degree of emphasis of various notes within a chord, angles of attack, details of underlying percussive subtext, etc.). Here, even though the specific choices would make no difference to a listener, or even to Patti, I see it as critical that I constantly exercise whim as much as possible rather than fall into doing things the same way all the time. It makes me more and more flexible. It gives rise to unplanned possibilities that do make a difference. I even suspect that sometimes it keeps my mind busy and out of the way so the music can flow through me more naturally. The boundary of details between what matters and what doesn't matter in music is elusive and very important. By constantly interacting with it, I believe I come closer to correctly balancing the ego with the music.
When I'm playing alone, I play primarily for myself rather than for the audience. I figure that my standards for myself are more unforgiving than those of any other listener, and that cumulatively, over a period of time, this will lead to the most sublime and honest music to share with others. At the same time I trust that subliminally I am in touch with the hearts of the audience. It is like trusting that the music is dedicated to God even when I'm too busy to be thinking about God. At times I also imagine myself playing for one of my musical heroes, like Wes Montgomery, with the goal of making him smile with a little of the satisfaction I've received from hearing him. And I can never turn off the consciousness, developed in years of playing for dancers, of whether it is grooving or not.
I often have tried looking at the audience more, but when I do the music tends to fall apart. It's easy to get lost looking into the beautiful, sweet faces that we get to see and forget to play at all. I frankly don't know how Patti does it without bursting into tears all the time.
Patti: It goes back to the fundamental principle we agreed on when we first got together in 1978: We don't sing or play a single note that doesn't come from our hearts. Although I studied acting and became very good at acting out a musical role convincingly, we decided there would be none of this in what Tuck and I do. If it speaks to my heart, then I can make it speak to your heart.