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Adam Theis Does It All With the Jazz Mafia

November 27, 2018

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It was as easy to become dizzy watching Adam Theis perform as part of The Soiled Dove extravaganza in Uptown Oakland last month as it was witnessing the production’s aerialists and acrobats do their magical thing. In his role with the throwback alternative circus that is hosted by the Vau de Vivre Society, the multi-instrumentalist led two separate bands — one for the dinner show and another for the production itself — while acting, switching between trombone and bass guitar, and even riding a skateboard momentarily.

It’s the perfect representation of the life and career of a supreme multitasker. An alumnus of Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, the North Bay native founded the ever-expanding Jazz Mafia collective in 2000 while he was living in a self-described bachelor pad/musician hangout in the Mission District. With nearly a dozen different bands under its musical umbrella, Jazz Mafia units have encompassed styles ranging from hip-hop, jazz, and R&B to classical, rock, and electronic.

Three different groups are participating in the Jazz Mafia residency at the SFJAZZ Center from Dec. 7 through 9. The following Sunday, Jazz Mafia is participating in Oakland Symphony’s annual Swing and Soul — Let Us Break Bread Together concert at the Paramount Theatre by writing arrangements and playing with the symphony and guest vocalists and vocal groups.

Theis was on the phone with SFCV just prior to Thanksgiving from Millmont, the Oakland neighborhood where he and his wife, violinist, aerialist, and Jazz Mafia co-leader Shaina Evoniuk, have lived for the past five years. He speaks with both the enthusiasm of a music omnivore and the cool calmness of a leader who’s accustomed to juggling multiple bands and various genres.

I’ve always enjoyed it when [guitarist] Bill Frisell, [pianist] Jason Moran, or [drummer] Allison Miller come to town to perform, as they’re constantly bringing different bands. We’re lucky here in the Bay Area that you take a similar approach.

Many of the bands I grew up playing in were band bands, you know, where if the drummer can’t make a gig, we’re not going to book it. It’s not going to happen. You didn’t get subs. I feel like that’s where my heart’s at. But in the absence of that, I’m not going to not play. So I’ve developed this side passion of having the projects and the opportunities to be able to bring different people in. Even the limitations of the substitute or maybe even the instrument that you would normally use not being available so you’ve really got to start hunting around: I’ve just learned to roll with it and let those situations create new projects as opposed to fighting it.

Was it tricky picking which three groups you’d showcase at your residency at the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab?

It wasn’t obvious. Cosa Nostra Strings has something there in March [March 3]. So that ruled that project out. I knew that I wanted Heaviest Feather involved in it if possible. That’s a pretty big band for Joe Henderson, just size-wise.

The other major consideration I’ve had just from doing this kind of residency there a few times is “Don’t be too ambitious.” They definitely like you to put on something that isn’t what you just played last month somewhere else, and I like that. I like that they push for that. But sometimes I run with that too far, and then it ends up being three nights of completely new stuff. It gets stacked up on top of each other and gets harder and harder to just put on a stress-free show.

So I was, like, “Okay, well, let’s come up with some thematic things and use as many of the same core musicians as we can through the three nights.” And then we figured it out just by kind of playing Tetris: If we do this Ladies of Hip-Hop thing (on Jazz Mafia’s Heaviest Feather night), that’s special. Then if we do this Brass from the World thing (via Brass Mafia) that complements it.

And the Jazz Mafia Accomplices band that finishes out the residency features the band from The Soiled Dove?

Yeah. Dublin is the lead vocalist of this group that we’ve been doing stuff with through the past few years, and then we added players to it. Using the Soiled Dove band for the closing night really made sense because we’ll just have finished our two-month run. And that band will be smoking. It’s also our only club appearance for that band.

The Oakland Symphony Let Us Break Bread Together concert is up right after that.

This is the first one for us, so we’re excited. When we first started working with them [for W. Kamau Bell’s Playlist concert in January], it was around this time of year last year. And they were trying to get us involved, but it was just too late.

We started to work on the arrangements for this many months ago. It’s about six or seven arrangements for the show, and it’s split up amongst the arrangers in our crew. We have a rhythm section and some horns for a lot of the tunes that we’re doing with them.

There are three different choirs and vocal groups and two singers, and they’ve been saying 300 people will be on stage during the finale — all performing. It’s definitely going to be the most people I’ve performed with on stage. And I’ve performed with a lot!

It’s been a dream of mine ever since awe started working with really large ensembles, like 50-piece groups [a.k.a. the Jazz Mafia Symphony]. We haven’t been doing that as much mainly because it’s a risk. I don’t have money in the bank to cover if a gig gets cancelled, because I always pay my musicians.

And it’s such an honor working with [Oakland Symphony]. It’s really, really great for us because we just get to walk in and play. We don’t have to manage the players or the orchestra.

When I was watching and listening to you play bass at The Soiled Dove performance, I was impressed with how natural your bass guitar playing is. How did that come into your instrumental arsenal?

In high school, I was listening to all this kind of more rock music. And there were no bass players at our little high school in West Sonoma County. I noticed I always listened to the bass when I would be playing air guitar to whatever rock I was listening to as a kid. I was always mimicking the bass, and I didn’t realize until later that I dug the bass the most — maybe because I was a trombone player. People always say there’s some connection.

I found a crappy [bass guitar], started playing in a rock band a couple of years later and was horrible. I never took lessons and would just teach myself bad technique. But it was an escape from the pedagogy and the regimented world of the trombone. This was before the whole teaching kids School of Rock and having it be fun or even the jazz camps that I’m involved with where we don’t introduce sheet music, at least at first. We teach everything by ear in the beginning.

And all of the sudden I’m in my bedroom jamming out on whatever random cover song that we’re just fumbling through, and it was so fun. No one was there to tell us, “Oh, you’re not doing it right. You need to learn this first.” And I think that’s what it was with the bass: I didn’t have to learn anything first before I could have fun with it.

And you just improved over time?

One day we were going to have band practice, rock band. The band teacher was really cool: He’d let us use the band room for our garage band rehearsals. We got locked out, but we had our horns with us because we had marching band practice later. And instead of having a rock band practice we just went out on the lawn and took that same approach that we had with our garage band — no sheet music, just come up with something in the moment. We wrote a tune on our horns that was more influenced by funk-rock stuff we were digging on.

It was one of the biggest light bulb moments in my musical existence. From then on, I said to myself, “I need to start thinking more like a real musician on the bass — practicing, reading music, utilizing good technique, and just being a better musician.”

Then with my horn playing, I wanted to embody more of that really fun spirit and freethinking especially with other people, like that communal aspect of being in a garage band. I want that to be a big part of the way that I make music in everything I do — trombone, bass, whatever. I started to get a lot more serious about bass at that time and getting a lot less serious about trombone. [Laughs] 

I was, like, I’m not going to be playing in a symphony orchestra. And it’s not just then going to be about technique and being the best at playing bebop trombone or something like that. I’m going to try to be the best player I can. But the main thing I want to do is play in bands doing really fun, unique things and pushing boundaries. So I’m probably going to be doing something that’s really hybrid and different.


Catch Adam Theis with various incarnations of the Jazz Mafia at the Joe Henderson Lab at SFJAZZ, Dec. 7–9. Details and tickets at the SFJAZZ website.

On Dec. 16, Theis and the Jazz Mafia join the Oakland Symphony and other guest artists for Swing and Soul — Let Us Break Bread Together.

Yoshi Kato is an independent journalist from the South Bay who covers both popular and performing arts-oriented music and arts and entertainment in general. He tweets and is on Instagram as @yoshi140.