In the house of Tuk
● By J. Chambless
Bryan Tuk is the lead conductor and percussionist for The Bryan Tuk Complex. (Photo by Jim Coarse)
By Richard L. Gaw
For two days this July, Kennett Square musician Bryan Tuk holed up at the SpectraSound studio in Quakertown with an ensemble of 13 musicians, to record an album entitled Life in High Gravity.
Figuratively speaking, the studio caught on fire during the recording sessions – a commonplace occurrence when the Bryan Tuk Complex knocks out some work in a studio or performs live. From straight ahead jazz and big band 1970s funk – and variations of modern rock and pop tossed in for fun – the group is made up of some of the biggest names in the Lehigh Valley-Philly music scene, including several young musicians who are currently studying music at Temple and West Chester Universities and the University of the Arts. In addition, Tuk also had bassist Brian Bortz and guitarist B.D. Lenz with him, who are members of the Bryan Tuk Trio.
Over the period of two long recording sessions, with Tuk on drums, the ensemble recorded a six-track CD that included interpretations of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” “What is Hip?” by Tower of Power, and “How Deep is Your Love?” by the Bee Gees. The recording came on the heels of the March release of Liftoff, and with one album done and the other on the way, the Bryan Tuk Complex was now riding the glorious high that occurs when creativity meets output.
“A lot of what made this recording came as a result of word-of-mouth,” Tuk said. “I remember sitting in this control room listening to these musicians and wondering, ‘How did this possibly happen?’ It’s rare to get so many talented musicians like this in the same room together.”
In between recording sessions, Tuk was continuing his Kennett Square law practice, conducting percussion lessons to young musicians through his company Groove KSQ, and with his wife Jen, nurturing the lives of his teenage children, Connor and Sarah. His was a very full and extraordinarily enriched life that hit all cylinders: Husband, father, musician, band leader, teacher, attorney.
What he did not know was that he was a walking time bomb about to go off, and on July 29, just weeks removed from the recording of Life in High Gravity, Tuk sat on an operating table at Chester County Hospital as attendants and doctors prepared him for a catheterization for a blocked artery, wondering if he would survive.
Earlier that day, Tuk had met with studio engineer Jim McGee at SpectraSound to wrap up post production on Life in High Gravity. The songs all sounded crisp. Every horn, every beat, was melded in sharp cohesion, and Tuk drove back to Kennett Square that afternoon, anxiously looking forward to a Sept. 14 CD release party and performance at the Kennett Flash with the entire band.
At about 3 p.m., in the middle of a lesson at Groove KSQ, Tuk began to feel a tickle in his throat and some slight indigestion. Nerves, he thought, just some pent-up anxiety and anticipation from the new recordings. After the lesson, he went home and rested. Jen and the kids were in Stone Harbor, N.J. for the weekend, so the house would be quiet and allow him to catch up on some much-needed rest.
At 9 p.m. Tuk felt like someone was pulling on his ribcage and was not letting go. His hands had begun tingling again. He drove himself to a nearby Urgent Care but had arrived at 10:05 p.m. – five minutes after the center had closed.
“I then drove myself to Chester County Hospital, because it just seemed to be the fastest way to get help and not have to wait for an ambulance or EMS to find me,” Tuk said. “In retrospect, it was incredibly dumb, but at the time it seemed like a reasonable decision.”
Within two hours of arriving at the hospital, Tuk had a stent implanted in one of his arteries. While he lay on the operating table waiting for the procedure, he began to have thoughts – the ‘God-forbid-if’ kind that took him on a checklist of his life. He knew that Connor and Sarah would be okay; they were both self-sufficient and would have the ability to negotiate their way through the world. Jen would have Connor and Sarah to help her carry on.
The checklist then came to his music.
“Immediately after, I began to think ‘Thank God those last two records are done,’” Tuk said. “I thought that if I can leave behind some recordings that are objectively good, that’s enough of a legacy.”
He remained in the hospital for the next four days, during which time a cardiologist told him that he can’t continue living according to such a dizzying schedule. He said that Tuk’s mortality rate was very high; Tuk’s father died of a heart attack when Bryan was seven years old.
Tuk left the hospital and returned home to rest. Exactly eight days after his heart attack, he made plans with Jen to have dinner in a nearby restaurant, and as they were leaving the driveway of their home, the same symptoms he had experienced a little more than a week before returned. As they tuned on to State Street in Kennett Square, Tuk told his wife that they needed to return to Chester County Hospital. Soon after they arrived, he received a second stent.
“If the first heart attack was the major shock, then this second incident was the aftershock,” he said. “Knowing that the Chester County Hospital is so close was comforting to me. The people at Chester County Hospital saved my life – twice.”
On Sept. 14, with the entire Bryan Tuk Complex crammed onto the intimate Kennett Flash stage, Tuk hit the first notes of a sold-out show that poured through the entire catalog of Life in High Gravity and dipped into earlier recordings of the band. Horns of various pitches reverberated around the listening room. The big band was in total sync, and Tuk sat behind his drum kit center stage – a man fully in charge of his life again.
Unless he or she has reached superstardom and is confined to the sequestered life of limos and airports and fancy hotels, a musician’s life is motivated in part by the harmonious connection he or she has with other musicians. In Tuk’s case, several in the Bryan Tuk Complex have known and played with each other for years, and the recording became the outgrowth of networking and friendships. In preparation for Life in High Gravity, Tuk said that he began to chat it up with the ensemble last December, preparing charts and conducting two pre-recording sessions.
From the time he was a youngster playing the spoons on his mother’s couch, Tuk has been drawn to the tactile sensation of drumming and percussion. It led him to study music at West Chester University and pursue a career in music, while at the same time earning a law degree and practicing the legal profession, first in a firm and now in his own private practice.
Like many musicians, Tuk is a magician with a gift, trying to balance his love of music with the obligations of running his practice and being a married father of two children. Eventually, he realized that what he needed more of was time, so he began his own law practice, which now shares office space with yet another passion of his – Groove KSQ, a percussion and music studio, where he conducts lessons in music and provides opportunities for young people interested in music.
“In my prior law position, I was in the car making three trips to Allentown a week,” he said. “That’s 12 hours on the road, and that’s practically two work days. My enemy became the wasted time that was taking me away from my mission.”
In 2014, Tuk gave a TEDx talk in the Lehigh Valley, and discussed the roadblocks that he faced in the big juggling game he was playing.
“If you embrace your own true nature, and allow that person to come to the surface in your professional world, then many pleasant and surprising things will happen to you,” he said at the talk. “You will unlock your own potential.”
By his count, Tuk has several projects currently on his plate, which include continuing to develop Groove KSQ in partnership with local organizations; championing the EP recording the Bryan Tuk Trio released earlier in the year; planning a limited run tour with the ensemble; and discussing an upcoming recording by the ensemble that will feature original songs composed by some of its members.
For the moment, he said that Life in High Gravity is a high water mark in his musical journey, one that’s taking center stage for now. Tuk and the band will be making a return visit to the Flash on Nov. 24, beginning at 5 p.m.
“I want people to leave the Flash humming the melodies and remember what they heard,” he said. “With the talent that is in this group and the way we constructed the arrangements, from a technical standpoint, it’s very gratifying to play. I want our music to be accessible for the casual listener, as well as experienced musicians, because this band is terrific.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.