It's become a tradition, four years running: When Patti Zlaket returns to her hometown of Tucson for the holidays, she performs a concert at Club Congress.
Although she is now a personal-injury attorney in the San Diego area, Zlaket spent the better part of the last 20 years working in music. She's a singer, songwriter and pianist who has recorded and released three albums of intimate blues, jazz and pop, often performed in a cabaret setting.
She'll play this Friday night at Congress, accompanied by drummer Scott Seymann and guitarist Fil Aguirre.
Zlaket graduated from Salpointe Catholic High School in 1987, and four years later earned a degree from the University of Southern California, where she studied musical theater. She then moved back to Tucson for a few years, getting her musical career together.
She released her first album, The Promise, in 1994, which was long enough ago that the Tucson contact number for her on the CD had a 602 area code.
By 1996, she had moved to Nashville "on a wing and a prayer," she says.
"The Nashville people, when they would listen to my music, would say, 'You don't sound like you're from Nashville; you sound like you're from L.A.'
"I realized there was a big difference between this West Coast thing and Nashville, where it is still pretty dominated by the country scene.
"Although I thought a lot of my material would translate well to the country market, it wasn't meant to be. And, when it comes down to it, I am pretty much a West Coast girl."
She moved to California 16 years ago, and ended up in San Diego—which also happens to be much closer to her Tucson family.
She struggled with the unpredictable nature of making a living as a full-time performer and often held other jobs to make ends meet. She waited tables, tended bar, temped, worked for a skin-care company and had a job in the corporate office of Mail Boxes Etc.
She eventually found steady work at a music-production company that created advertising jingles. "I was creative director and produced and/or sang literally hundreds of radio ads which aired all over the country," she says.
After seven years in music production, she made the leap to return to school in her mid-30s.
"I felt like I had kind of hit the wall with that job. ... Going back to school, I wasn't sure I was ready to do it. Honestly, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I had made myself a promise that if I didn't really love this, I wouldn't continue."
But she did love it. Studying—and now practicing—law, she says "fits me like a hand in glove."
"The fact that my father is a lawyer, and I have a number of attorneys in my family, didn't hurt. It is in my blood to a degree. And being a litigator is more similar to performing music than you might think at first."
Her dad, by the way, is Thomas A. Zlaket, a longtime local attorney and former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
Patti Z., as she once billed herself, has never married and has become known for using her dating life as inspiration for songwriting, and for between-song stories on stage.
"I share a lot of my dating stories when I perform, mainly because they are so horrible and hilarious that I have to share that in a humorous way with my audience," she says.
However, there may be change in her romantic future, although she is cautious to reveal too much.
"All I can say is there hasn't been a sad dating story in a while. And I haven't been able to perform a blues song with a lot of energy or commitment for some time now," she says with a smile in her voice.
Zlaket still plays gigs a couple of times per month. Now, though, she isn't worried about earning enough from a gig to pay the rent; she performs for the sheer joy of it. And she defines success in music differently now than she once did.
"It's a different thing now for me. At one point in my life, I had a very specific goal to make it in the music business. But now, being able to perform and make people happy, and still have the same kind of love and passion for music and performing that I do—that is a bigger success than I could have imagined in my 20s."