Jazz Mafia creator Adam Theis will bring new band Subharmonic to San Jose Jazz Festival
Adam Theis, right, rehearses with his band, including drummer Brandon Werlin, in his San Francisco home Wednesday, July 25, 2012. Theis is the creator of the edgy Jazz Mafia association of Bay Area musicians. He is a one-man industry -- a genre-blurrer who over the last 10-plus years has created a new, young Mission-based audience around his innovative notions of what jazz exactly is. (Patrick Tehan/Staff)
Adam Theis is the Jazz Mafia guy, always a little bit different. Watch him on YouTube wailing on his trombone — while wake surfing on Lake Sonoma. Or directing his band Supertaster, while backing Stevie Wonder in a packed San Francisco lounge. And then marshaling his troops onstage at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre: 55 rappers, singers and instrumentalists, performing one of his hip-hop symphonies.
A one-man music industry in the Bay Area for 15 years, Theis — who performs Saturday night at the San Jose Jazz Festival with Subharmonic, his new brass-led groove band — is a renegade with a traditional work ethic. Founder of the Jazz Mafia consortium — dozens of players, on call for his various bands — he is a genre-blurrer, smartly blending jazz essentials with hip-hop, dub, Mexican polkas, whatever, while attracting a new, and young audience.
And he’s always busy with a new project: “He has to have ten things going on to be stimulated and happy,” says Dublin, a rapper and lyricist who has worked with Theis for 15 years. “We kind of joke that his motto is, ‘If it’s not extreme, if it’s not a 50-piece orchestra,’ then he’s not interested.”
Theis, 38, lives with his girlfriend, violinist Shaina Evoniuk, in a spacious, funky apartment on an alley in San Francisco’s Mission District. There’s a didgeridoo in the living room, along with a drum set, a tuba, keyboards, electric bass, trombones. Theis, who plays all of them, grabs a couple of folding chairs and moves outside to a sunny spot in his driveway, where this leader of musical mashups talks about his latest eureka idea: paring back for a change, playing fewer one-nighters, hauling less gear and simplifying the tunes he composes.
OK, so he is organizing a new suite for trombone and strings, and he is curating a new monthly arts-music salon in the Mission (www.TreatSocialClub.com), where his bands collaborate with indie filmmakers and aerial dancers. Still, Theis claims he has a new motto: “Focus on what’s do-able. I’m forcing myself to rein it in. I find myself thinking, ‘Wait, that could lead to financial ruin. Wait, that could lead to logistical nightmares.'”
This was the thinking behind Subharmonic: Bring five musicians together, not 50. Put them in a room for three weeks, rehearse day and night and work up a new book of tunes: “single-note melodies with limited harmonies, not just bizarrely unusual chords. When you limit yourself, it can be more effective.”
Later, he plays some recorded demos by Subharmonic: buttery trombone over New Orleans, reggae and Gypsy jazz grooves; Ellington swing mixed up with hip-hop. They’re accessible but not simple, featuring tons of pad-triggered samples: washes of wah-wah and other electronics; a giant choir of trombones.
Theis is excited by the new sounds: “My students always say to me, ‘You’re so successful!’ Well, if you think about it money-wise, I’m not really so successful. But if you think about how I’ve always managed to play music that I want to play, that I can just feel proud of, all the time — then I think I’m super-successful.”
He grew up in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County. Mother Yvonne worked in a furniture store; father Richard worked for the phone company. Neither was musical — they owned about 20 albums, centered on Kenny Rogers — but Theis “would hear musical stuff in my head, long before I had lessons,” he says. “My imagination was running wild.”
In fourth grade, he tried out a neighbor’s trombone. Private lessons came later, “and I was just kind of like mediocre. And my mom threatened to sell my horn when I didn’t practice, which was all the time.”
Two relevant points: His mother owned a horse, cared for it daily and demonstrated that “you have to put in that hard work to sustain something.” Also, he started skateboarding, fanatically. He founded a skateboard club and discovered he enjoyed making flyers, publicizing meetings and attracting new members to the group.
“Bringing people together,” he says, “I always liked that communal thing.”
Theis joined the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra as a trombonist, but was “listening to punk rock and new wave, and hip-hop was starting to happen. And suddenly me and my friends were jamming out, loose-knit, and there was something about it that felt really good, that we could just do our own thing, play what we wanted to play and make up crappy songs.”
In high school, he got his “groove thing” together. At Sonoma State, studying with bassist Mel Graves, an open-minded pedagogue, he got his “jazz thing” together — and began driving to San Francisco, where the acid jazz scene was in full swing. He walked into the Black Cat club in North Beach, a packed underground venue, and discovered “the culmination of all the music I’d heard growing up: funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz.”
Theis began sitting in on trombone and electric bass, eventually got a regular gig — and his musical community started to grow. Out of the Black Cat scene, his bands proliferated: Realistic, crazy with drums and looping; Cannonball, pushing jazz toward world music; Shotgun Wedding Quintet, blending jazz and rap, with Dublin. And during “one of those nights at Black Cat, around 2000, one of those epic jam sessions, 4 a.m.” — that’s when DJ Aspect, a regular, coined the phrase “Jazz Mafia” to describe Theis and his community of musical troublemakers.
Now Theis, a nearly middle-aged veteran, has the fattest musician’s Rolodex around. “When we put together the hip-hop symphony” — he’s done it twice — “it was really easy to fill out a 50-person band.”
Randall Kline, who runs SFJazz, helped steer Theis toward a $50,000 grant, with which he took his Brass, Bows and Beats hip-hop orchestra on the road in 2010, performing at the Hollywood Bowl and the Montreal Jazz Festival. Theis, Kline explains, “embodies good San Francisco values: searching maverick, focused, creative, risk-taking.”
JJ Morgan, a club owner and old friend, who hired Theis early in the acid-jazz days, calls him a “mad scientist composer. Whenever you hear Adam’s music, it just sounds like today.”
Theis can’t seem to do it any other way. What he can do is slow down a hair. “We’re bred to be musical mercenaries,” he says. “But you can only do so many gigs.”
Theis now wants to do more teaching, more producing and arranging.
“These are things you can actually do in your slippers,” he says, “have a cup of coffee and actually be awake in the morning.” He looks up and smiles, mulling over the thought. “Crazy.”
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069 and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin
Adam Theis and Subharmonic
At the San Jose Jazz Festival
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jazz Beyond Stage (intersection of Post and south Market streets)
Tickets: $20 (includes Theis and all other Saturday festival events), $5 ages 5-12, free ages 4 and younger,