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Summer arts preview | Jazz

Renegade really likes sharing the stage

Adam Theis (foreground) and the ever-expanding Jazz Mafia will perform music from 'Brass, Bows and Beats' at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. Adam Theis (foreground) and the ever-expanding Jazz Mafia will perform music from "Brass, Bows and Beats" at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. (Bill Evans)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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Call Adam Theis crazy. Tell him he’s a wild-eyed dreamer, a mad man heading for a Greek-scale financial meltdown. The trombonist has heard it all before, but as the composer and driving force behind the Jazz Mafia’s epic “Brass, Bows and Beats’’ Theis is laughing last.

He’s earned his renegade status not because he’s combining hip-hop and post-bop, classical orchestration, and soul revue gyrations. Rather, the indefatigable San Francisco impresario set his sails against the prevailing recessionary winds forcing fiscally responsible bandleaders to downsize.

Against every prediction, he’s not only flourishing with his ambitious 50-piece project but taking it on the road, performing his “Hip Hop Symphony’’ at North America’s highest profile jazz events this summer, from the Hollywood Bowl and the Montreal International Jazz Festival to the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, where his sprawling ensemble shares the Fort Stage on Aug. 7 with the likes of Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“I’ve heard most of that: You’re crazy! What are you thinking?!’’ says Theis, 35. “But let me tell you, it was crazier a few years ago. Now, even though the band is 50 or more, I have a team helping out. It is crazy, but it doesn’t have that frantic feeling. Musicians are getting legit e-mails with timelines for when and where they need to be. The guys who’ve been with me for years can’t believe it. They say, Wow, you’ve gotten organized.’’

Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Calif., Theis moved down to San Francisco in the late 1990s, and he’s been a one-man employment agency ever since. At last count he was leading, writing, and arranging for some 10 bands, including the Shotgun Wedding Quintet, Realistic Orchestra, Spaceheater, and Supertaster (which earned the ultimate bragging rights when Stevie Wonder sat in with the band last year).

The mix-and-match ensembles all perform under the Jazz Mafia umbrella, so Theis had an expansive pool of familiar players to draw from when he started to write “Brass, Bows and Beats,’’ which premiered last year as part of SFJAZZ’s Spring Season concert series.

The unlikely project was born on paper, when Theis filled out a grant application for an Emerging Composer Award from the William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Alexander Gerbode foundations, seeking funding for “a suite that will merge modern jazz and symphonic instrumentation with hip-hop and electronic music.’’

“When you’re putting a grant together, you say some stuff that you think they want to hear,’’ Theis admits. “But it turned out, I really could create a 50-piece orchestra, incorporating different styles, using the different Jazz Mafia ensembles. As I wrote the music I did what I naturally do. I didn’t have to stretch, or compromise, or do anything that didn’t feel natural.’’

With strong ties to many different musical communities, Theis had little trouble locating string players capable of improvising or rappers who could interact with an orchestra. East Bay hip-hop star Lyrics Born has participated in just about every “Brass, Bows and Beats’’ performance. Alternating between dense, often funk-driven instrumental passages and songs featuring various combinations of soul belters and rappers, the symphony showcases a dazzling cross section of Bay Area talent.

“I really like sharing the spotlight,’’ Theis says. “I’m a trombone player. I don’t see myself being up in the front all the time. People are surprised that we’re not using backing tracks. They ask, What symphony are you guys working with? Like we’re a hip-hop band and we hired a symphony. This is our band. We’re all partying together. We all write music together. As people start to realize that, they’ll appreciate it more.’’

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JAZZ MAFIA’S BRASS, BOWS and BEATS At Newport Jazz Festival, Aug. 7. Tickets are $69 at 866-448-7849 or www.ticketmaster.com.

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