Adam Theis Feature in Valley Times for Dartmouth College Artist Residency
Composer/Multi-instrumentalist Theis talks about his one week long artist in residence at Dartmouth College leading the 25 piece Barbary Coast Ensemble performing his original compositions.
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Entertainment Highlights: From San Francisco to the Barbary Coast
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, October 24, 2013
(Published in print: Thursday, October 24, 2013)
For more than 30 years, the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble, a Dartmouth College student band under the direction of Don Glasgo, has brought guest artists to the campus and the Upper Valley. Glasgo’s longtime focus has been to introduce newer forms and styles of jazz to audiences rather than relying on the tried-and-true Big Band sound that people associate with the 1940s and 1950s.
Glasgo brings large ensemble compositions and sounds that “aren’t heard very often in the Upper Valley,” he said in a phone interview. “I try to do a lot of Latin and funk stuff in a big band context. … I’m not interested in swing-style big bands that are recreating the past but aren’t moving music forward.”
Moving music forward is one of the guiding principles of Adam Theis, the San Francisco musician and composer who will play at 8 p.m. this Saturday with the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble in Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center. Theis (pronounced Thee-iss) directs the San Francisco Jazz Mafia, a consortium of Bay Area bands and ensembles. The program will consist of Theis’ compositions, his arrangements of three Michael Jackson songs, and an arrangement of George Gershwin’s Summertime , from Porgy and Bess .
“There is a kind of organic feeling to (Theis’) music that I like a lot. It all comes from the groove,” said Glasgo. This isn’t knotty abstraction that’s hard to listen to, he said, but neither is it E-Z listening Muzak. A club owner told Glasgo that “everything Adam does sounds like today.”
Theis, who grew up in northern California and now lives in Oakland, started playing the trombone when he was a kid. But he didn’t really get serious about it until high school, when something clicked and he realized he wanted to make a career of it
“Something happened with the way that I thought about it,” he said in a phone interview. Part of his turn toward music as an avocation was, he said, “being around other people who had a passion for it and were displaying it.”
He studied music at Sonoma State University and has played with a Who’s Who of musicians, including Carlos Santana, Booker T. Jones, Liz Phair, Mickey Hart (the composer and percussionist with the Grateful Dead) and Bobby McFerrin. In addition to the trombone, Theis also plays bass, trumpet, tuba and keyboards.
But his approach to playing and writing music really changed when the Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation awarded him a coveted “Emerging Composers” grant in 2008.
“That was a really life-changing thing for me. Before that I’d been kind of doing (composition) in the way I’d been doing it in college. It allowed me to try different things and approaches.” One of the ideas that emerged was that Theis realized he “wanted to get away from having everything notated.”
He wanted the musicians to have more creative latitude in contributing to the sound of a piece; the sound would emerge out of playing and improvisation rather than from music written down on sheet music. It would be a more accessible way of approaching jazz, which has its cerebral side, and that was part of the reason he got the grant. The foundation wanted him to “connect with younger people. It wasn’t just, here’s a bunch of money to write some weird music and then disappear.”
“There’s a lot of jazz composition for big bands right now that sounds intellectual and overly structured at some point,” said Glasgo. “It’s kind of workmanlike and overly involved in the craft of composition. It’s a much different process than having music coming from what you’re thinking or playing.”
Theis laughed when asked about the inclusion of Summertime , which might be the most covered, most familiar standard of all time. It’s suffered from overexposure, and there are probably as many so-so or mediocre renditions as there are masterful versions, a trap of which Theis was aware.
“I was resistant at first. My aesthetic is not to do songs that have been done way too much,” he said. Theis would rather experiment with songs that people don’t know as well. The B-sides, not the A-sides, he said. But one of his jazz heroes is Gil Evans, the orchestrator who collaborated with Miles Davis on three of his masterpieces from the 1950s: Miles Ahead , Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain .
“Gil Evans was known as an arranger, but I think of him as a composer,” Theis said. “He would just rewrite music.”
So when the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble takes on Summertime on Saturday, they’ll be playing a version that takes it in different directions. “ Summertime is such a masterpiece of a song, it’s a challenge to me. I need to make it unique,” Theis said.
You can hear what he does with it Saturday evening.
Tickets cost $9-$10. They’re available through the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or athttps://hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/131026_bcje.