Jazz Mafia Symphony
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Jazz Mafia Symphony

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE
Band Jazz Hip Hop


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Brass, Bows & Beats is “what you’d hear if a full-size philharmonic found itself jamming with a classic big band during a street corner rap battle” according to the critics, and they couldn’t have been more accurate with that imagery. Because Jazz Mafia Hip-Hop Symphony is not your every day philharmonic ensemble; it’s a musical assemblage based out of San Francisco, California and a band that has a lot to offer. Not only do they play, write and arrange all types of music from jazz, soul and funk to big band and orchestral mash-ups of various genres of hip-hop, but founder Adam Theis plays the trombone and bass guitar while also participating in a handful of other bands. Talk about an act of multiple facets.

It all starts from the moment the first track makes its entrance. A woman makes an introduction as the crowd cheers and musicians shuffle in the background. Smooth, sexy and enticing, “Darkness and Light” then rumbles into the forefront, instantly drawing the crowd into a silence and pulling listeners into a mysterious and alluring dose of spoken word over a bit of soul and funk. Then, there’s “Sweet Memory.” Perhaps one of Brass, Bows & Beats’ strongest musical executions, the song takes it to Broadway with its big band explosion and theatrical recitation. Listeners will feel as if they’re right there at the venue when the cymbals clash, the record scratches, and the band erupts into an explosion intertwined with intoxicating horns and mellifluous vocals. “Sweet Memory pt. 2” is a raging, faster-paced extension of the preceding with its rock appeal, jazzy vocals, latin-influenced drums, and rich strings. When the string section comes in on “Theme in F7” it’s a breath of fresh air and extremely hard to stop listening to, as is the whole entire album.

Overall, Brass, Bows & Beats is a production that is full, rich and refreshing. Its well-executed performance is one that is innovative and timeless and will prove to be one of those lovers of music will look back on for years to come. - URB.com

Adam Theis hasn’t forgotten the early days, learning the art of live jazz in a downtown Santa Rosa sports bar-pool hall in the mid-’90s.

“We would play at Masse’s on Fifth Street. There’s no stage and we’re playing in this corner of a giant cavernous room,” he says. “Looking back it was rough, but when we were doing it, we thought it was the best thing ever. We had regular gigs playing jazz.”

Flash forward to next Saturday, when the 34-year-old Santa Rosa native premieres his suite at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, commissioned by SFJAZZ as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. “Beats, Bows and Brass” imagines a 50-piece post-modern orchestra with no borders, where jazz plays call and response with hip-hop, where turntables and electronics mix it up with cellos and violas and all the pretentious baggage that comes with “the symphony” is kicked to the curb.

“It doesn’t really fit into any musical categories really well, but it’s not something that’s just really weird for the sake of being weird,” says Theis, who was awarded the Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation “Emerging Composer” grant, which funded the SFJAZZ commission of his new work. “Sometimes with symphonic music with a lot of acoustic instruments, if you can’t relate it to something it seems like it’s really hard to dig into it musically.”

The two-part concert is the hybrid culmination of everything he’s dreamed, from his early Santa Rosa days with Cannonball to the ongoing revolving projects Shotgun Wedding Quintet and Hip-Hop Symphony, Realistic Orchestra, Brass Mafia and Supertaster.

“We still can’t really believe we’re doing this,” Theis says a few weeks before the show.

Over the past few months, he’s been holed up in his Mission District apartment working eight to 12 hours a day, balancing the organic approach — jamming, demos, making beats, collaborating with vocalists Dublin and Joe Begale — with the note-for-note rigor of composition and sheet music.

“There’s no notation software that’s fun to work with,” he says. “It all sounds like a video game from the ’80s.”

A week ago, on stage with Shotgun Wedding Quintet at Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol, Theis held down the bass all night. But four strings weren’t enough. With the bass still strapped on, he repeatedly picked up the trombone and gave it a few pulls, moving on to keyboards for a short spell, playing a blue-collar jazz shiva — if he had more arms, you get the feeling he could play every instrument onstage.

“I feel like I kind of neglect the ’bone a lot,” he lamented earlier in the day. “Even when I write arrangements it’s kind of the last thing I think of — am I giving it props? I feel really awkward if I bring it and I don’t pick it up. It needs to be played.”

During the ’80s, Theis picked up the trombone from SRJC music teacher Ken Winett, who turned him on to more than just jazz, rooting him in the gospel of Take 6 and Jamaican pre-reggae rhythms. Schooling included digging through crates at The Last Record Store, picking up tips from the encyclopedic staff, and “sneaking into the Old Vic” to see sax player Eric Crystal and guitarist Dave McNab.

In the Sonoma State jazz program, the El Molino High grad studied with the late Mel Graves, who taught him how to tap into the cerebral side of music, always a precursor to the jazz idiom, “Learn it to unlearn it.”

“I was late getting into theory,” he remembers. “Most of what I use now, I learned from him.”

After spending most of his time driving around the Bay Area for gigs (and nearly spending a night in Santa Rosa Creek after a wreck on Willowside Road), Theis moved down to 25th and Mission in San Francisco in 1998, quickly finding a sound lab down the street at the hipster hideaway Bruno’s Supper Club, where his various bands and improv acts have played for the past eight years.

Theis has two new albums coming out this month, one with Brass Mafia, the other with Realistic Orchestra.

For the sake of variety, consider a track off each: The Brass Mafia cover of Janet Jackson’s pop classic “Nasty” started with a rough Garageband remix “and then I was like, wow, let’s make it even weirder and play it with a brass band. It turned into a double remix — a remix of a remix.”

On Realistic Orchestra’s “Symphonies From Down the Block,” MC Dublin raps over “The Captain Goes Down With the Ship” for a pendulating free-form cinematic sketch that borrows a one-eyed jack from “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

But Theis, the consummate bandleader with a hand in everything from logos to lodging, hardly has time to think about marketing new CDs before next weekend’s world premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts.

“It’s definitely going to be the most amazing cast of musicians I’ve ever played with — all under one roof. And it might be for a really long time. It’s gonna be the biggest thing I’ve been involved with.”

Over the past month, “we’ve been doing a lot of the logistics and tech stuff on the show and we - The Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Call Adam Theis crazy. Tell him he’s a wild-eyed dreamer, a mad man heading for a Greek-scale financial meltdown. The trombonist has heard it all before, but as the composer and driving force behind the Jazz Mafia’s epic “Brass, Bows and Beats’’ Theis is laughing last.

He’s earned his renegade status not because he’s combining hip-hop and post-bop, classical orchestration, and soul revue gyrations. Rather, the indefatigable San Francisco impresario set his sails against the prevailing recessionary winds forcing fiscally responsible bandleaders to downsize.

Against every prediction, he’s not only flourishing with his ambitious 50-piece project but taking it on the road, performing his “Hip Hop Symphony’’ at North America’s highest profile jazz events this summer, from the Hollywood Bowl and the Montreal International Jazz Festival to the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, where his sprawling ensemble shares the Fort Stage on Aug. 7 with the likes of Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“I’ve heard most of that: You’re crazy! What are you thinking?!’’ says Theis, 35. “But let me tell you, it was crazier a few years ago. Now, even though the band is 50 or more, I have a team helping out. It is crazy, but it doesn’t have that frantic feeling. Musicians are getting legit e-mails with timelines for when and where they need to be. The guys who’ve been with me for years can’t believe it. They say, Wow, you’ve gotten organized.’’

Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Calif., Theis moved down to San Francisco in the late 1990s, and he’s been a one-man employment agency ever since. At last count he was leading, writing, and arranging for some 10 bands, including the Shotgun Wedding Quintet, Realistic Orchestra, Spaceheater, and Supertaster (which earned the ultimate bragging rights when Stevie Wonder sat in with the band last year).

The mix-and-match ensembles all perform under the Jazz Mafia umbrella, so Theis had an expansive pool of familiar players to draw from when he started to write “Brass, Bows and Beats,’’ which premiered last year as part of SFJAZZ’s Spring Season concert series.

The unlikely project was born on paper, when Theis filled out a grant application for an Emerging Composer Award from the William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Alexander Gerbode foundations, seeking funding for “a suite that will merge modern jazz and symphonic instrumentation with hip-hop and electronic music.’’

“When you’re putting a grant together, you say some stuff that you think they want to hear,’’ Theis admits. “But it turned out, I really could create a 50-piece orchestra, incorporating different styles, using the different Jazz Mafia ensembles. As I wrote the music I did what I naturally do. I didn’t have to stretch, or compromise, or do anything that didn’t feel natural.’’

With strong ties to many different musical communities, Theis had little trouble locating string players capable of improvising or rappers who could interact with an orchestra. East Bay hip-hop star Lyrics Born has participated in just about every “Brass, Bows and Beats’’ performance. Alternating between dense, often funk-driven instrumental passages and songs featuring various combinations of soul belters and rappers, the symphony showcases a dazzling cross section of Bay Area talent.

“I really like sharing the spotlight,’’ Theis says. “I’m a trombone player. I don’t see myself being up in the front all the time. People are surprised that we’re not using backing tracks. They ask, What symphony are you guys working with? Like we’re a hip-hop band and we hired a symphony. This is our band. We’re all partying together. We all write music together. As people start to realize that, they’ll appreciate it more.’’ - Boston Globe

Judging from the Facebook frenzy that followed, Adam Theis' hip-hop symphony must have been explosive when it premiered last year at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Not that it's the first of its kind — dAKAH Symphonic Hip-Hop Orchestra has haunted Los Angeles for roughly twenty years — but it's definitely a crowning achievement for local bandleader Theis, heretofore known for his loose coalition of funk-based jazz ensembles, The Jazz Mafia. Theis is a workaholic who occasionally gets spread thin, between all his moguling and side-manning duties. (He's an accomplished trombonist.) The Brass, Bows, and Beats project forced him to hole away for several months, producing a score that mixed real brass and electronics into a sinuous whole.

In its totality, Brass, Bows, and Beats is pretty daunting. It comprises eight movements that apparently tells a story about San Francisco's urban landscape (the lyrics serve to create atmosphere, and if there is a coherent plotline, I didn't get it). Two evocative singers (Karyn Paige, Chris McGee, Rich Armstrong and Joe Bagale, who also did the arrangements) converge with two rappers (Seneca and Lyrics Born), and two spoken word poets (Dublin and Aima Paule), to put the icing on a score that owes more to Stevie Wonder than to big band composers of the past. The raps sound inessential, but the vocal parts are smooth and pliant and beautiful. (Check Bagale's hook on "Sweet Memory" — if I were him, I'd release it as a single.) And the music is fantastically cool, with its mix of bluesy seventh chords, sexy flat nines, and breakneck string solos. "Sweet Memory Part 2" ends with a throbbing boom-boom-bap drumbeat that pulses exactly like old school hip-hop. (Jazz Mafia) - East Bay Express


Brass, Bows, and Beats

Selections from The Emperor Norton Suite



Collectively known as the Jazz Mafia, this talented group of musicians seamlessly combines Latin polyrhythms, boom-bap rhymes, melancholy ballads, swinging jazz and blistering solos, while at the same time adhering to symphonic structural elements. All spun together in the spirit of a Jazz era big band- but conducted with a maestro's sense of timing, timbre, and mood- the experience is akin to watching the New York Philharmonic back a street corner B-Boy battle in the heart of downtown Oakland.

The Jazz Mafia Symphony is a monumental achievement displaying an exciting barrage of compositional elements, which the composers ingeniously weave together through a complex blend of skill, talent and courage. An eager and quickly growing global audience awaits their further contributions. A creative force on the Bay Area music scene for more than a decade, the loose-knit band of jazz cats, MCs, arrangers and composers known collectively as The Jazz Mafia, is fast emerging as the most prolific musical organization on the West Coast. Launching some of the Bay Area's most innovative and stylistically expansive ensembles, these musicians contribute their varied talents to a cross-cultural mix of new beats and melodies, blended with instrumental virtuosity.

The Jazz Mafia Horns have recorded in the studio with Carlos Santana and backed artists such as Zion-I, KRS One, and Thomas Dolby. Other bands in the JM pantheon include The Shotgun Wedding Quintet, the incredible Realistic Orchestra, Supertaster with Joe Bagale, Brass Mafia, Jazz Mafia Trio, Spaceheater, and The Shotgun Wedding Hip Hop Symphony. With top-tier brass players, an always premium rhythm section, and dealing in jazz, funk, hip hop, soul, R&B and more, The Jazz Mafia form one of the most powerful assemblies of virtuosic performers on the West Coast.