Allison Adams Tucker looks around at the rafters and the antique tchotchkes and bric-a-brac, which includes a five-foot tall red Pegasus vintage Mobile Gasoline sign on one wall. “I just love it here,” she says.
I’m sitting across from her. It’s a warm day, and Adams Tucker is wearing a light pumpkin-colored cotton dress. I sip my coffee and she orders soup. Whenever I interview musicians I always tell them to choose a place where they would feel the most comfortable, and Adams Tucker has chosen the Pannikin just north of Encinitas along Coast Highway 101.
Of course, there is much to like about the Pannikin. For one, the coffee is good, the sandwiches, too. And the old floorboards creak charmingly with every step. But this old Victorian structure started out in life as a train depot. Where people now sit, sip their espresso drinks, and check their latest Instagrams on their laptops was once a bustling hive where folks boarded trains for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Bangor, Maine.
I suspect that it’s the echoes of movement that this structure still has from its halcyon days that Adams Tucker appreciates, because this San Diego native has been on the move and has made the entire world her home. With a degree in linguistics, she has studied, and sings in, six languages besides her native English. Her travels have taken her to more than 15 other countries, and she has lived in Spain and Japan, where she taught English as a second language.
As I watch an Amtrak train speed north, I ask Adams Tucker what her upcoming plans are. “I’m off to Hawaii next week,” she responds.
Okay, I think my suspicions have been confirmed.
The singing globetrotter was about to return to Hawaii for her sixth year in a row, with plans for a series of performances. “Every year I perform at Hawaii Public Radio. They have an auditorium that seats 75 people, a grand piano, and a recording studio on site,” says Adams Tucker. “Sacha Boutros turned me on to this scene there. And I love the people who work there. They’re a lot like the people at Jazz 88.
“Last year I was able to go on this trip with my mom, my sister, and her daughter, so we had three generations of our family together. We stayed on the North Shore. Oh, and the beach! It’s the most beautiful beach in the world and the sunsets are gorgeous. The town there, He‘eia would remind you of San Diego. It’s a surf town and the people there are very environmentally conscious, very earth friendly. That’s where they have the pro surf competitions when they get the big winter waves.”
Adams Tucker was also returning to sing at Ward’s Rafters, a concert venue that takes the concept of house concert to a whole other level. Years ago, the owners expanded their property, building an A-frame structure on their top floor. Called “Honolulu’s Most Famous Secret Place,” there is no advertising, revenue is by donation, and attendance is by invitation only. The venue features an ivory white piano. Adams Tucker was scheduled to perform at Ward’s Rafters with pianist Tommy James, the famed musical director of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra.
To experience an Allison Adams Tucker performance is to see a rare talent. Words such as floating and flying have been used to describe her vocal quality. She also eschews gimmickry or showiness. At a recent performance at the Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego she choose gems from the Great American Songbook. Beginning a set with “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” Adams Tucker played around a bit with the wry humor of the song. The rest of the band, Bob Boss on guitar and Duncan Moore on drums, picked up on the mood and tossed in some fun of their own.
Adams Tucker appreciates the “in the moment” freshness that jazz offers to musicians and listeners, and she brings a slight change of mood with each tune. Tonight she is wearing a dark flowing dress that contrasts with her long blonde hair. She is quite fair, has striking blue eyes, and a big, big smile. She swings on the upbeat tunes, but it is the ballads that really showcase her style and approach. She seems to glide through the seasonal depictions of “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Music was always in her blood. Her father, who worked as a physician, had started out as a music major when he was an undergraduate student, and Adams Tucker’s mother was an opera singer. “Our house was always filled with classical music and Broadway show tunes,” she recalls. As a youngster she was schooled in violin, piano, and flute, beginning at age four or five.
She was the youngest child admitted to the children’s choir at her church. She also sang in the choir at school. And as soon as she was grammar school age she was in dance and gymnastics classes. She was second chair violin in the school orchestra. Dance, flute, piano–all of them–engaged Adams Tucker, but she enjoyed singing the most. “For me, it was voice. From a very early age I had an undying love to sing,” she says. “It was so exciting to me to make music with my voice.” In high school she wrote over 100 songs.
When it comes to singers whom Adams Tucker admires, she mentions the obvious vocal giants of jazz and popular song: Sarah Vaughn and Billy Holiday. But it is Ella Fitzgerald whom she credits with the greatest influence on her singing. “I relate to Ella Fitzgerald musically the most,” she says. “I love her tone and clarity, and I guess some of it gets a little technical, I mean the way singers approach their craft, like the way she forms her resonance, I also like the brightness in her voice. I also admire her sense of pitch and like her melodic choices. The way she arpeggiates is akin to the way I arpeggiate.”
Adams Tucker showed me her compilation of tunes she performs. She keeps them on her phone. The information was overwhelmingly exhaustive, which includes the title, the key she performs them in, the composers, the year of composition, and further notes of what the song is about or what inspiration brought about its composition.
Of all of her musical accomplishments, Adams Tucker considers her recordings to be the most significant. Adams Tucker released her first CD, Come With Me, in 2008. She produced the collection of a dozen standards with a roster of some of San Diego’s finest musicians, among them bassist Evona Wascinski, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Kamau Kenyatta, and guitarist Peter Sprague. “Peter has been a great mentor to me and was very helpful in putting together my first CD,” says Tucker. “I made the disk about a year after I had started singing jazz. It was a way of putting myself out there. I wanted to really perform, to be more than a wedding singer, to tour and perform at festivals. I also wanted to have something to show for my work, something to last.”
Her second disk, April in Paris, was actually recorded in Paris and capped off a nine-concert European tour that Tucker had done with Bassist Wascinski. Her most recent, and possibly most ambitions, CD is Wanderlust. As the title implies the recording is all about the joys and seduction of travel. Tucker recorded all the tracks in New York City and sings in the many languages that she has studied. One thing apparent from her this disk is the importance of getting a great arrangement to back up her vocals. Musically, they stand on their own
Her CDs have more than put her on the map; at just about every one of her performances audience members will let her know that they came to the show because they heard her on Pandora or Spotify. But it might be from a recording that was used as part of a video game that has garnered her the most attention, at least in cyberspace. “All the other recordings used on this video game are from famous performers like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. But the gamers had to look for me on YouTube. You might say I went viral because of that song,” she says.
Working in the studio forces you to grow,” says Tucker. “Musically it requires more than if you’re putting on a show. In the studio it is very non-emotional. You’re literally in a wooden box, looking through glass at the other musicians. So it’s difficult to make that connection, to find that emotion, but you have to try to make it real.”
That musical growth reaches beyond the sound booth. Adams Tucker feels that her live performances have benefited from her experience making recordings. “I used to feel disassociated from my audiences,” she says. “I was putting all my energy into my voice and not connecting with the audience. I had to realize that the emotional content is equally important. It’s important to me that I’m telling a story in an authentic way. People think that getting to the emotion of a song is just about love or sadness. And there is a lot more to it than that.”
Adams Tucker speaks of George Klabin, a prominent recording engineer and producer, who agreed to listen to her two first CDs. “He said to me, ‘You have a beautiful voice, but I can’t feel any emotion there. Sing a song and make me believe that you’re happy.’”
Often Adams Tucker taps into the emotion of a song by learning about the songwriters and what may have inspired a song. She says, “I love to sing the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.” Well, what is that song all about? George Harrison wrote that song, and the inspiration of that song came when he was with Eric Clapton in his garden and it was the first nice day of spring. So I try to imagine that it’s England, a place of miserable weather, and it’s been cold and miserable for months and what it must have felt like when that first nice warm day came along.”
Interest in the world beyond her Clairemont neighborhood, where Adams Tucker grew up with her brother and sister, started early for her with an early, and subsequently lifelong, fascination with languages. “My father had been studying Spanish, and when I was five years old, he gave me a book on Spanish,” she says. The young Adams Tucker attended Longfellow Elementary, a language immersion school, and studied Spanish after school as a high school student.
Adams Tucker threw herself even more deeply into language studies as a college student. She studied linguistics, French, Spanish, Latin, and German as an undergraduate at Anderson University, in Anderson, Indiana. Adams Tucker describes the100-year-old private Christian school as being culturally conservative, a place where even dancing was not allowed on campus.
For the southern California native, the city of Anderson, which lies about 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis, presented a very new experience. First off, it is very flat in Anderson. The topo map of the town would have no lines. And Indiana experiences what a lot of people refer to as “real weather,” with rain and sleet and snow. She says, “It was cold! And here I was a California girl. I didn’t own a pair of socks!”
At Anderson, Adams Tucker’s other passion–music–took control. She joined a New Wave band called Slylyne (pronounced skyline). At the time, New Wave was the hottest thing happening. Hair was big and so were the sounds of the Talking Heads, Devo, and the Human League. The names of Liverpool and Austin are often associated with music. What is often forgotten is the importance of Ohio and the Midwest in pop music. Before, during, and even after the time Adams Tucker was a student in Ohio, the Buckeye State produced some of the best and most important bands and performers of the New Wave. Chrissy Hinde? She’s from Akron. The same goes for Devo. Pere Ubu is out of Cleveland.
Skylyne achieved a fair amount of regional success, travelling to play gigs in Chicago, Louisville, and other cities throughout the Midwest. Adams Tucker has fond memories of those days. She befriended the Ramones, and crossed paths with Metallica and Prince.
The next juncture in Adams Tuckers’ life was going to beauty school in Indianapolis. “I’d been cutting hair for my family and friends since high school, so it was a very natural move for me,” she says. She worked at salons in Indiana for several years before moving back to southern California with her husband, whom she met while she was a student at Anderson, and finding work at a salon in Del Mar.
The fascination with language came back to Adams Tucker in a big way when she discovered Japanese. “It was so easy to learn for me. Everything that I had studied before had been a romance language. But now I loved non-romance languages. I fell in love with Japanese,” she says. As it turned out, studying Japanese led to four years in Japan for Adams Tucker and her husband. “There were seminars being offered in Hotel Circle on how to teach English abroad. I wasn’t able to go but my husband went. He came back and said, ‘This is fantastic. We have to do this.’”
The couple wasted no time embarking on their new adventure. “We sold everything and bought one-way plane tickets to Japan. We had gone all up and down Japan and weren’t able to get anything any work teaching. We were down to our last couple hundred dollars when a friend that we had met at a hostel connected us to a school. It was great the position was for a teaching couple. The position came with a house plus a car. We traveled up and down Japan teaching English to business people. It was a blast!”
More travels ensued afterward. The couple spent six months traveling the world, including points in Southeast Asia and Australia. An attempt to teach English in Spain was not as fruitful as the venture in Japan, and the couple made their way back to the San Diego area. All the teaching experience led to a position teaching English as a second language at Mira Costa College, where Adams Tucker ultimately wound up as director of the ESL department.
Though she continued to love language and teaching, the love of music brought her back to singing. Punk and New Wave had been in Adams Tucker’s life years before. This time it was jazz. She says that it was more that jazz chose her than her choosing jazz. That it is not simply four chords and a beat, that there is an intellectual basis for the music and the spontaneous nature, both individually and collectively. She appreciates the supportive community of jazz artists. And perhaps most important, she feels that her naturally clear voice is suited for jazz.
A life in music still offers travel and wanderlust. She performs oversees and associates with an international cadre of musicians. She may perform in Japan with a pianist and then casually run into him months later in Paris.
Next month Adams Tucker will be performing at the Santa Fe Jazz Festival with Josh Nelson. On August 4th she performs in Las Vegas. Also in August, she will make a small tour of the Bay Area and a tour of Great Britain, which includes performances at one of Europe’s legendary vanguards for jazz: Ronnie Scott’s. She is also going through the initial planning for a new CD.
Most folks might think of her life as pulling her in two different directions, one way for music, the other for language and travel, but Adams Tucker doesn’t see it that way. “I am a human being who is hungry to find a way to connect deeply with everything around me. And it’s communication, through language, through music, that I can accomplish that,” she says. “And it’s that way I can do my part to make the world a better place.”