The name may evoke all kinds of bizarre Scarface-with-a-saxophone mental images, but the Bay Area Jazz Mafia is anything but silly or contrived. It's a loose-knit and ever-evolving constellation of serious and dedicated jazz and funk musicians, emcees, and composers, many of whom have been jamming together for more than a decade. This weekend, they'll be bringing Brass, Bows and Beats — a soaring, full-size hip-hop symphony that first appeared at the SFJAZZ festival in April — to Yoshi's San Francisco.
At the center of both the collaborative and the show is trombonist, bassist, and composer Adam Theis. "Adam's the sun," said Dublin, the vocalist for Mafia affiliate Shotgun Wedding Quintet. "Everything orbits around him." It was Theis who conceived of the Mafia in the first place, and he was the recipient of the $50,000 grant from the Hewlett and Gerbode foundations that made Brass, Bows and Beats possible.
Theis grew up in Sonoma County, studied jazz composition and performance at Sonoma State, and led a handful of North Bay bands before moving to San Francisco in 1998 to form the Jazz Mafia. The collaborative's first weekly gig was at North Beach's now-defunct Black Cat; when the club closed in 2003, Theis and the Mafia moved on, tumbleweeding from residency to residency, picking up a devoted following and a dedicated corps of musicians along the way. These days, they're playing regular Tuesday shows at Coda, and Theis now counts as members of the Mafia close to sixty musicians, sprinkled among several groups.
Each of these bands has its own distinct sound — from Shotgun Wedding's strings-heavy pub-hop to the Realistic Orchestra's big-band sensibility. But their members tend to overlap, and all the groups are firmly rooted in a spirit of fusion and experimentation, blending innovative, hip hop-inflected beats with old-school instrumental virtuosity. The result is like what you'd hear if a full-size philharmonic found itself jamming with a classic big band during a street-corner rap battle. In other words, it's like nothing you've ever heard before. "It's a really interesting, dynamic thing," said Dublin, referring to the hour-long symphonic suite, which is the culmination of the Mafia's work thus far. "Adam mixed a really old kind of arranging with current ideas of hip-hop, so what you get is these hard beats mixed with emotional strings and horns."
In a genre founded on experimentation— and in a moment when everyone is sampling everyone else and DJs are spinning mashed-up genre-benders to sold-out crowds — Theis and the Mafia certainly aren't the first to find the sweet spot between hip-hop, classical, jazz, and electronic. But they may be the first to do it so earnestly and so elegantly. Brass, Bows and Beats layers rapid-fire rhymes over equally furious instrumentation and fully integrates boom-bap rhythms, turntable scratches, and beatboxing into classic symphonic arrangements. While the Mafia is undeniably loyal to its jazz roots, hip-hop is given the respect it deserves but rarely gets — it's not an afterthought or a gimmick, a lone emcee rapping over what was really intended to be a traditional piece.
The show is also unprecedented in its size: It's one thing to combine genres, but quite another to do so with $50,000, a forty-piece ensemble, and a full year to craft the thing. "The grant was to put together something really large," Theis said. "Our idea was, let's just take the work we've been doing and do it on a much bigger scale." Indeed, everything about April's sold-out show at the Palace of Fine Arts was big: the band, the audience, the ambition. Theis said that this iteration has been downsized from the original in a few ways — most notably, Berkeley emcee Lyrics Born won't be participating, and the ensemble has been pared down from sixty musicians to forty to accommodate the tighter space at Yoshi's. Even so, it's safe to expect the same lush, layered sound and almost operatic largeness at the upcoming show.
Brass, Bows and Beats' scale is particularly remarkable given how hard the past few years have been on San Francisco's jazz scene. From the genre's mid-century golden age through the dot-com boom, the city was a hub for jazz musicians and fans, but Theis saw many of the scene's best and brightest skip town for New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "There was a huge exodus of musicians around the dot-com crash," he recalled. "Things got harder." And they appear to have only worsened in the economic downturn, as venerable joints have struggled to stay afloat. Jazz at Pearl's closed last year, Bruno's (which hosted the Mafia for years) switched to a Top-40 format last fall, and even Yoshi's had to take out several loans from the City of San Francisco after seeing business drop precipitously. But, Theis said, it's this kind of climate that fosters the kind of creativity that drives the Jazz Mafia: "When you have to struggle a little bit, that's when the best stuff happens creatively. Because at this point, if you just limit yourself to straight-ahead jazz, unless you're Wynton Marsalis, you can't make a living. So most people have gotten really good at incorporating all different kinds of jazz."
Moreover, as the musical community gets smaller, it gets tighter — and community is what Theis, the Mafia, and Brass, Bows and Beats are all about. "There's an overwhelming sense of community and partnership and teamwork with the Jazz Mafia," said Karyn Paige, vocalist for Mafia group Supertaster, who'll appear in the upcoming show. As tough as the market is, the Mafia's various groups and individuals don't compete with each other for gigs, and Theis said one of his goals in forming the collective in the first place was to dissolve some of the cliquishness of the scene. As shticky as the Mafia moniker may seem at first blush, Theis said it's really meant to evoke the idea of a family, as well as the bravery that many of his musicians displayed in being willing to improvise and stretch boundaries.
The symphony's general narrative theme centers around the concept of community — creating it, finding it, defining it — according to Dublin, who penned many of the lyrics. The piece is community-oriented in its form as well as its content: Like everything Theis touches, the project is a truly collaborative effort. "What is so special about Adam is that belief in community," said Joe Bagale, who wrote many of the show's vocal arrangements. "He could've just went and written this whole thing himself, but he really wanted to involve other musicians." Theis is quick to emphasize the creative support he got from Mafia members — particularly Dublin, Paige, and Bagale, who contributed quite significantly to the lyrics and arrangements. It's all part of his collaborative ethos. "This is a community we've created, and we wanted to use [the grant] as an opportunity to include even more people in that community."
In a way, even the Mafia's sound builds community as it breaks down the boundaries between musical categories. In making hip-hop respectable and jazz accessible, Theis and the Mafia have opened up each genre to new fans, and shown just how much groups as seemingly disparate as hip hop-heads and jazz-lovers have in common. This isn't lost on Theis. "It's so gratifying seeing older people, younger people, all different ethnicities at the shows. It's the best feeling, really. It's what it's about."
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