Jazz Mafia's Adam Theis on the Group's New Hip-Hop Symphony, Performing with Blackalicious, and More
Jazz Mafia's Shotgun Wedding Quintet, with MC Dublin in the middle, and Adam Theis on the far right.
Whatever you're doing this weekend, we can pretty much guarantee that the members of the Jazz Mafia are doing more. The S.F. jazz collective's hip-hop outfit, Shotgun Wedding Quintet, is serving as the backup band for Blackalicious' live show tonight at Mezzanine. It will also open the show with some of the songs from its new concept album, Tales from the Barbary Coast. Then, on Sunday, Jazz Mafia will premiere its second hip-hop symphony, Symphony No. 2, The Emperor Norton Suite, at Stern Grove with MC Chali 2na and other special guests. Mafia founder Adam Theis wowed the world last year with his first hip-hop symphony, Brass, Bows, and Beats, which was performed at the Monterey and Montreal jazz festivals, among other prestigious venues. The second symphony, he says, was written more in a collaborative style about one of San Francisco's most legendary eccentrics, Emperor Norton. We checked in with Theis recently to find out how all these projects came together -- and how the history of San Francisco played a major part.
So you're backing up Blackalicious in S.F. Saturday after opening the show. How did that come about?
Originally we were just going to play on part of the set, but then we were having so much fun at rehearsals and everyone was vibing, it turned into playing on every song except two in the set. We all agreed with them on it like this time last week.
Is it just for these L.A. and S.F. shows?
They're not on tour, but we're really hopeful that we'll get to do more, because it's a lot of work to put in for two shows. But that's how it always is -- you never know what's going to happen after.
So are you bringing some jazz to Blackalicious' sound?
Definitely. Often with vocalists and in hip-hop, they kind of want everything to be pretty simple all the time, except for maybe one little moment. I would say Blackalicious, out of all the groups we've worked with, encouraged creativity and improvisation. You learn the parts, but also we're all constantly changing things to make it fit the songs better. It doesn't have to sound just like it sounded in the studio.
How is it different playing for Blackalicious than, say, when Shotgun Wedding Quintet is playing on its own? Is there a different approach?
It's pretty different. When we're working with somebody else, there's definitely this dance that you do with being polite and being very respectful of their thing, even if it's just a good friend. We like that challenge of being directed.
What's your approach to mixing hip-hop and jazz? After you performed your first hip-hop symphony at Monterey last year, some traditional jazz heads were a little rankled.
I always kind of air more on the side of jazz than hip-hop. Somebody who saw us at Monterey ... they're grading it on a scale of compared to Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, whatever. And when somebody who listens to like Digable Planets or Jay-Z grades us, they grade us against that, and maybe the little bit of jazz that they've heard. I want to play for the people who hear a lot of hip-hop and who hear a lot of incessant beats on the radio and maybe they don't want it to be so much like that, they want to have more of that jazz experience. Sort of having their hip-hop with their jazz, or their hip-hop with their world music or electronic. It's not like a bunch of people who don't know the history of hip-hop just playing a hip-hop beat. We try to really know what where the music's coming from and be respectful to it, but take it in a really new direction.
What's your take on the whole future of jazz question? Do you think jazz is still a vibrant art form? Do you think it still has places to go and to develop, or do you think it's going to sort of end up being a museum piece?
The true spirit of jazz -- as far as the thing about it that got the most people into it -- really comes from a small club experience. And that's not to say that Yoshi's in S.F. is too big to have good jazz shows. I've seen some. I really I think where the magic happens, where everybody in the room is like "Oh my god, did you hear what that guy just did?" and they're like glued to what's going on, happens in the smaller venues. And because of the way the infrastructure of our modern society is set up, it's really hard for those clubs to survive and turn a profit. The museumification of it kind of makes sense economically, because you can get it sponsored by all sorts of private funding. When my friends go see a jazz concert maybe for their first time or a student goes and they go to these big places, I just don't think they really get it. They go, "Oh that guy's good, cool, I've seen him on YouTube, cool, he played that song" -- but you're not really getting that experience that you can only get in a room where you can see the sweat dripping off the dude's brow.