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An Offer We Can’t Refuse

music JazzMafiaAdam Theis’ army of musicians, Jazz Mafia All-Stars, marches to Kuumbwa

Adam Theis is a musical whirlwind. As the kingpin of the Jazz Mafia, a San Francisco-based collective of jazz musicians that routinely backs up everyone from Carlos Santana to Thomas Dolby to legendary rapper Lyrics Born, Theis is at the center of the cyclone. Factor in his symphonic work with his hand-picked orchestra, and you can understand why in 2009, Theis was awarded the sought- after Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation Emerging Composers Grant—which brought his vision of an army of musicians working together one step closer to fruition.

The Northern California native’s ability to multitask various projects can be traced back to his time in graduate school when Theis was majoring in music composition at Sonoma State University. He was also managing and playing in a ’70s/’80s cover band and a swing band called the Savoy Swingers. But it was his jazz collective, Cannonball, that ignited a full-blown jazz scene in sleepy Sonoma.

From outside the National Association of Music Merchants convention in Anaheim, Theis remembers the early years. “Cannonball changed me,” he says. “We did just a one-off gig at a sports bar in Santa Rosa where they had jazz on Sundays. Our first show was really packed and we had a killer response—which is unusual for anywhere in Sonoma County. So we made it a monthly thing and that spun off into a lot of other projects.” Theis realized that if he could create a jazz scene in a place where few people like to go out, he could do it anywhere. He also found out that audiences appreciate familiarity alongside more challenging pieces. “The formula I arrived at was to mix it up a lot.”

Fast forward to 1998 when the young composer/trombonist moved to San Francisco’s Mission District where all his ideas morphed into the Jazz Mafia. Today, the group boasts more than 50 members—there are smaller versions of the larger collective like Shotgun Wedding Quintet and the Realistic Orchestra, but the Jazz Mafia Symphony is the real gem. “We still do shows with the Realistic Orchestra but the symphony has taken on a lot more of our focus,” says Theis. This has resulted in the symphonies ‘Brass Bows and Beats’ and ‘The Emperor Norton Suite,’ that have wowed jazz fans across the country.

On Thursday, Feb. 2, the Jazz Mafia All-Stars head to Kuumbwa Jazz with vocalist Crystal Monee Hall (who also tours with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s band) at the helm.

Asked about the dynamic of a large ensemble, Theis explained, “There are core members who really help manage the band and arrange the music. To book a gig I just send out one email and text—as long as the core members can make a show, I book it. What’s changed is the core members have grown to a higher number—the symphony now has 12 core members.”

Theis appreciates the opportunity to grow with a group of musicians over the span of a decade. “We’re all in this boat together and try to push each other to accomplish new things,” he says. As a bandleader he is also committed to bringing out the best in those he works with. “When I work with new people I want to hear something different, unique.” As a composer and player Theis has learned to work with his rotating cast and not to force his opinion. “I try to involve people a lot, but at a certain point not everything can be designed by committee. I try to make decisions that make the core people happy—and every once in a while I fail, but they understand it.”

As for how he manages to keep so many projects going with so many players, Theis has a simple explanation: “It’s based on trust.”

The Jazz Mafia All-Stars play at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/adv, $23/door. For more information, call 427-2227.

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