Adam Theis

Lion’s Roar

Michael Amsler

Renaissance Man: Adam Theis wraps his lips around many musical styles.

Trombonist Adam Theis leads pack of local young jazz lions

By Greg Cahill

“IN JAZZ, there are so many options–you’re never locked into any certain thing,” observes trombonist, bandleader, and composer Adam Theis. “I like the challenges and the freedom that presents.”

True to his word, the 23-year-old Theis has created a challenging brew of traditional and contemporary jazz styles that has put him in the vanguard of a pack of local young jazz lions. His latest project, Cannonball, is a gritty romp through the soul-jazz grooves of late sax great Cannonball Adderly, with a splash of hard bop tossed in for good measure.

Cannonball–which plays at Main St. Station in Guerneville on the weekend of the upcoming Russian River Blues Festival–is composed of a shifting lineup of six to nine musicians, all vying for a chance to play at the dates. “You usually don’t find a jazz gig that’s this much fun, since jazz is usually pretty individualistic and intellectual,” says the soft-spoken Theis, a Sebastopol resident and Sonoma State University jazz studies grad. “This band lies right between a great dance band with lots of energy and improvisation.”

Theis is no stranger to local music fans. He already has made a name for himself on the Bay Area club scene as a member of the original funk band School of Lou, and as part of a local disco band called Old School, which boasts full costumes and choreographed dance numbers. In addition, Theis and keyboardist Jason Sherbundy are members of Strangewood, a local folk-rock group.

But in recent months, Theis has shifted his attention to the jazz thang. In January, he released the self-produced Revival Kit (Flying Harold), a CD issued on Conspiracy bassist Joshua Staples’ Petaluma-based label as the Adam Theis Ensemble. The disc of Theis originals features pianist Sherbundy; drummer Elliot Kavee of the Club Foot Orchestra; bass player Jon Evans, who tours with former Non-Blonde singer Linda Perry; and guitarist Liberty Ellman and tenor saxophonist Eric Crystal, both of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

It is a sophisticated and intelligent set that spotlights both Theis’ considerable gifts as a composer and his generosity as a bandleader. “It was out of necessity that I recorded that,” he explains. “I was doing way too many rock gigs. I just wanted to even out the scales, so I decided to go all out.”

In April, he launched Cannonball, a band designed to satisfy his own fondness for ’60s soul jazz while tapping into the wealth of talented young jazz players in the county. “What I wanted [with this band] was something that was more stripped down [than his ensemble]–down-home stuff that I could play with a few friends,” he says. “And we’re not necessarily playing for a jazz audience.”

The response has proved positive, especially among local alt-rock fans. “People are definitely there for the energy,” he says. “They like a band that will take chances and that is always evolving. It’s different than following a band for its image; it’s more of a personal experience in which people like to root for the band.

“I mean, we might fall on our faces because we’re doing new stuff all the time, always taking chances. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” he adds with a laugh. “But people enjoy that because they’re used to seeing local bands that play the same songs, the same solos week after week.

“When people hear something different, they might not even know what it is, but they know that they like it.”

Adam Theis and Cannonball perform Saturday, June 7, at Main St. Station, 16280 Main St., Guerneville. Tickets are $3. 869-0501.

From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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