Written by Lilan Kane. From Scene: The Guardian Guide to Bay Area Nightlife and Glamour -- on stands now in the Guardian
Jazz in its most fashionable and handsome form found itself around a table at Coda recently. I had the pleasure of meeting with dapper Jazz Mafia members Adam Theis, Joe Bagale, and Dublin to gain some insight into their music and experiences as members of one of the Bay's most youthful jazz ensembles.
The Mafia (www.jazzmafia.com), as one might expect, is a collective that incorporates several smaller groups containing dozens of members into a large and tuneful family. The first of these groups, Realistic Orchestra, was established about 10 years ago when various jazz forces of the Bay Area started to intertwine and jam together. (Other branches of the family include Brass Mafia, Spaceheater, and the Shotgun Wedding Quintet.)
Main Mafia figures Theis (trombonist, arranger, and bandleader) and Dublin (emcee, vocalist, rapper) are still at the forefront of Realistic Orchestra. They've held a Tuesday night residency at Coda for several years, rotating various Jazz Mafia acts. The night I interviewed them, singer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale was taking the stage, with Theis manning the bass.
Before moving to the elegantly appointed Coda, the Mafia had a raucous six-year run at Bruno's, racking up several awards and introducing jazz to a new generation of night-lifers. The sharpshooters have played with Lyrics Born, Santana, Bobby McFerrin, Sly and the Family Stone drummer Gregg Errico, and many more. A highlight: recently Joe was closing a Saturday night show with Donny Hathaway's version of John Lennon's song "Jealous Guy." He was lost in the moment of it with his eyes closed and his heart pouring out into the microphone. He opened his eyes to find Stevie Wonder in front of him. Wonder got onstage and the band prompted him to revisit an old B-side cut, "All Day Sucker." Suffice to say, the house was rocked and shocked.
But Mafia members' interests aren't limited to revamping standards with star power. In 2008, Theis won the prestigious Gerbode-Hewlett Foundation's Emerging Composers Grant, which he used to fund his latest project, "Brass Bows and Beats," a 50-minute innovative suite with strings, vocals, horns, a DJ, and even a didgeridoo. When Theis took the group to the Playboy Jazz Festival last year, host Bill Cosby called Bagale to the stage, facetiously suggested that the variety of genres in the piece would sound like skimming through all the channels of satellite radio really fast. Admittedly, this concept — infusing hip-hop, jazz, classical, soul, electronic, and more — is ambitious. But Brass Bows and Beats debuted with a sold-out performance at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco last April and was deemed an artistic success. (Theis will also be jazzing up the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Shostakovich's Symphony 8 in April.)
Dublin, the MC of the group, adds a hip-hop element to the mix — and a connection to younger fans. He recently paired with producer Elon to release a solo record, Ease The Pain (Jazz Mafia Recordings), featuring singers Emily Schmidt and Forrest Day. And Bagale, although able to call up the deepest soul and sharpest wit in his vocal stylings, enjoys taking a background role as head vocal arranger. "One of the coolest experiences for me is to be able to write and arrange for other singers and not be the focal point," he said.
About those arrangements — it's in its orchestral distribution of sounds that the Mafia really shines. Its talented members have the capacity hear and highlight a dazzling array of instrumental lines, often numbering up to 45. Then the group's arrangers write them out instrument by instrument, voice by voice, line by line. "To do one three-minute or so tune, I usually put in 50 to 100 hours," Theis said.
In an attempt to reach more young jazz enthusiasts, the Mafia is planning a summer tour across Canada, New York, and New England, the first major tour it has undertaken. These young men and women are trying to expand the palette of the live scene, one arrangement at a time.
JAZZ MAFIA TUESDAYS
Tuesdays, 9 p.m., $7
1710 Mission, SF
ADAM THEIS AND ALL-STAR JAZZ MAFIA ENSEMBLE WITH SF SYMPHONY
April 2, 8 p.m., $15–$130
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness, SF
JAZZ MAFIA TOUR FUNDRAISER FEATURING BRASS, BOWS, AND BEATS
April 25, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., $25–$75
Yoshi's SF 1330 Fillmore, SF
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