I just got off the phone with Adam Theis, who’s still flying high. Christ, he’s got every right to be. On Saturday night, in the middle of his set with Supertaster at a very tiny and very new club called Coda in the Mission District, someone whispered into his ear that Stevie Wonder had just walked into the room. “The rest of the band soon found out,” he recounted, “and we were all looking at each other like, what the fuck?!”
It’s no small thing, Stevie Wonder walking into the room, especially when you’re a band who’s made a habit out of playing dozens of Stevie Wonder songs. It’s no small thing, either, when at the end of your set, Stevie Wonder starts making his way up to the stage with his bodyguard.
You know the rest: Stevie Wonder got up and sang two songs with the Jazz Mafia at a tiny little club in the Mission District. I mean, after Stevie Wonder sits in with your band, what else is there? Does Theis ever need to play another show in his life? “It kinda feels like that, actually,” he jokes.
Here’s an excerpt of Theis’ written recollection of events:
We chatted with him for 5 seconds and decided on the tune “All Day Sucker” which is a tune we used to play a lot in Supertaster and also with Realistic Orchestra for the annual Stevie Wonder Birthday Tribute that we put on. I have to say that when he started singing the song it was beyond goosebumps…the crowd was going completely insane yet being very respectful, the band was playing better than ever and we honestly had no idea that Stevie would even want to sing with us. He did what I felt like was my favorite version of that song ever. As the tune was nearing a stopping point, I leaned over to Bagale and suggested testing the water by playing the riff from “Can’t Help It,” the hit song he wrote for Michael Jackson. Joe gave me a huge smile and head nod.
It was a little weird when I merged into the bass line from “Can’t Help It,” Stevie was still singing “All Day,” and he kinda froze for a second to get his bearings – I was kinda freaked out because I felt like, “I just cut off Stevie Wonder!!” Crap!!” But it took him literally 2 seconds and BAM! one of my favorite songs EVER came to life on stage live.
After it was all over, Stevie hung around the club, taking pictures and chatting with the band, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking. “You’ve got five minutes to hang out with your idol,” Theis explains. “What do you talk about?” By all accounts, though, Stevie seemed genuinely interested in the band, in the San Francisco scene, and in Theis’ recent masterwork Brass, Bows and Beats. And right before he left, he called the whole group together.
“We got in this kind of a huddle, just the musicians, and is voice lowered a little bit,” Theis says. “It was really cool and intimate. He said he liked what we were doing, playing a lot of different styles and taking a lot of chances. He said keep doing it. Do not give up. He said this thing that we did tonight—we did, he said—is really, really important. That it’s what culture is all about.”
Here’s to the Jazz Mafia, to Supertaster and to Coda. And for Theis, a former Santa Rosan who’s done nothing but make a name for himself since he left town, I know he’s on Cloud Nine and probably will be for the next year. “Someone would have to come back from the dead, actually,” he says, “for it to be better than Stevie Wonder.”
Here’s the video:
Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!
Just got off the phone with old pal and former Santa Rosa resident Adam Theis, who’s meeting with Mos Def tonight to discuss their upcoming collaboration for the Band Shell Music Summit in San Francisco. If you’d’ve told me eight years ago that Adam Theis would be working with Mos Def, I’d say you were crazy. But then I’d think about it, and I’d totally believe you, because Theis is among the most talented and dedicated musicians I know.
Here’s the deal: Theis’ Realistic Orchestra is the backing band for Mos Def in a free show on October 18 at the Golden Gate Park Bandshell, between the De Young Museum and the new Academy of Sciences. You can’t just show up, though—you have to go to this website, lie about your income, feel guilty about not taking public transportation and say if you have an energy efficient lightbulb in your house or not. Kinda weird, but whatever—print out the voucher, and you’re in.
Theis says he and Mos Def are working on about a collaborative half-hour set with the Realistic Orchestra for the event, and is quick to point out that the rest of the day’s lineup—with Mingus Amungus, Lavay Smith, Kim Nalley, and some dude from Dave Matthews’ band—should be pretty great as well. The next night, the collaboration hits the stage again at Ruby Skye to benefit the Blue Bear School of Music. Tickets are $50. Go to the free thing instead.
Incidentally, Theis is also working on a two-hour opus commissioned by a prestigious Emerging Composer grant from the Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation, to be premiered next spring as part of the SFJAZZ festival by a 50-piece orchestra. No shit: a 50-piece orchestra. And all this after arranging horns for Lyrics Born’s last album, and the Mighty Underdogs’ last album, and J-Boogie’s last album, and oh, pretty much dominating the Mission District every Tuesday night at Bruno’s.