If Adam Theis were erased from San Francisco (à la James Stewart's George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life), the city would become radically more desolate. Sure, tourists would still shell out for cable car rides, and the new Bay Bridge would remain in a permanent state of construction. But the vivid colors of the local jazz, funk, and hip-hop scenes would unspool in cold black and white, rarely coalescing into a community.
It's hard to overstate the impact Theis has had on those musical genres as a trombonist, bassist, bandleader, and composer over his last decade here. He first made his mark mixing live musicianship and hip-hop with the Santa Rosa–based band Cannonball in the late '90s. Since then, he has led a series of groups and weekly showcases in San Francisco. Audiences for these performances have grown steadily and involved nearly every jazz and funk musician in town in the process.
Over the last few years, his full bands have expanded the boundaries of hip-hop (with Shotgun Wedding Quintet, which added a full string section and extra horns a few years ago) and drum 'n' bass (his Realistic project transmogrified into a full orchestra, with nearly two dozen members spilling off the tiny stage during a long Bruno's residency that ended late last year). With the Realistic Orchestra, Theis has given voice to large-scale compositions that mix modern club beats, contemporary classical orchestration, and world-class jazz improvisation. Along the way, he somehow found time to gig with Carlos Santana; arrange horn sections for Thomas Dolby, KRS-One, Zion-I, and Lyrics Born; and oversee the mini music empire affectionately dubbed the "Jazz Mafia," a loose conglomeration of musicians from Realistic and Shotgun Wedding as well as members of the Brass Mafia, Spaceheater, and other side projects.
Theis' ambition reaches a new apex at the Palace of Fine Arts this weekend, when he presents Brass, Bows, and Beats: A Hip-Hop Symphony. The performance, which comprises 50 players, combines his myriad musical experiences in one groundbreaking piece. Lyrically, the work is shaping up as an extended meditation on the different communities and characters of San Francisco, with at least seven vocalists and rappers involved. Musically, the piece is lushly orchestrated hip-hop, akin to a symphony jamming with an enormous jazz big band.
Lyrics Born, one of the featured rappers, says it's important to note that the event is the first of its kind. "Certainly there have been 'hip-hop symphonies' before, but this is a full-on movement," the Berkeley-based MC says. "It's like an opera in terms of the way it's structured, and I don't know that it's been done before quite like this."
For Theis, Brass, Bows, and Beats is a natural progression in a musical journey that has grown increasingly lofty. "I think everything we've done has steadily pushed [live instrumentation] a little bit," he says, speaking from the Mission District apartment where he's hosted innumerable late-night jam sessions over the years.
When the Shotgun Wedding Quintet recorded a studio album in 2007, Theis used the Realistic Orchestra on the track "Can't Get Enough," and the idea of combining different lineups into one gargantuan ensemble was born. "I was like, 'Man, this is it, this is everything,'" he says. "So right around that time, I decided I want to make [the Symphony] happen somehow."
He was able to implement his vision thanks to an out-of-the-blue phone call from SFJAZZ director Randall Kline, who pledged support in helping Theis apply for a $50,000 composition grant. With the funding secured, Symphony was scheduled as part of the festival's spring season, and he set about merging his diverse palettes into one epic piece.
Despite Theis' role in leading these ensembles, this will be the first time the bandleader's music will be billed under his own name and not as one of his various groups. But perhaps appropriately for someone so integral to the Bay Area music community, Theis is selfless when asked about crediting himself. "If it's a success, it'll be a success for all local musicians," he says.