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Shaina Evoniuk, married to the mob

March 25, 2018

Andrew Gilbert wrote an amazing piece about me for Berkeleyside. Check it out or read below!



Feeling a little lost after graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2008, violinist Shaina Evoniuk only knew that she wasn’t interested in the usual path paved by chamber music gigs and symphonic concerts.


“I was considering moving to New York or traveling to Europe,” she recalls. “I hadn’t found my musical compadres, and I didn’t know what my musical voice was. I was a recovering classical musician.”


With a job she loved teaching music at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, Evoniuk could pay her bills, but it wasn’t until receiving an unexpected email from the Godfather that she found herself inexorably drawn into the fearsome Bay Area conspiracy known as the Jazz Mafia. These days, she’s a made member of the stylistically heedless crew, and she celebrates the release of her debut album Hitwoman Honey with the Cosa Nostra Strings on Wednesday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall in a concert co-presented by Jazz in the Neighborhood.


How did the young violinist from Ashland, Oregon end up with a defiantly creatively gang of players melding jazz, funk, hip hop and European classical idioms? As is so often the case in these sad tales, the trouble all started with a trombonist. Adam Theis, the Jazz Mafia ringleader, was looking for adventurous string players for his wildly ambitious, 50-piece hip-hop symphony Brass Bows and Beats when he reached out to the unsuspecting Evoniuk in 2009. Though she could only make a few of the eight scheduled performances, Theis said no problem, and just like that she found herself ensnared in a musical plot that soon drew glaring scrutiny, with appearances at the Newport, Monterey, Montreal and Playboy Jazz Festivals (the project was supported by an “Emerging Composer” grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation).


Needless to say, Evoniuk had little idea what she was getting into, or the characters she had cast her lot with when she showed up for the first rehearsal “and played some of the most amazing music that included the bluegrass and jazz that made up my musical molecular structure,” she says, noting that she grew up watching her dobro-playing father rehearse his bluegrass band. When she returned to town for the Bay Area premiere at the Palace of the Fine Arts Theater, a concert presented by SFJAZZ, she plugged into a community that Theis had been building for a decade, a vivid cast including vocalist Alma the Dreamer, vocalist and drummer Joe Bagale, and rapper Dublin.


“After that I went out to every Jazz Mafia show for the next year,” Evoniuk says. “Now those musicians are all my best friends. I almost didn’t believe that life could change so quickly. I think it took me several months to realize that this is what I’ve been looking for. I found my people.”


She also found her person, as she and Theis are getting married in May.  He co-leads the Cosa Nostra Strings, which is performing as a quintet with violist Keith Lawrence, Rupa and the April Fishes percussionist Aaron Kierbel, and cellist Lewis Patzner (who’s also scheduled to perform Haydn’s “Adagio Cantabile” from Symphony 13 on April 1 as part of the Starry Plough’s Classical Matinee Series).


The ensemble emerged from the Jazz Mafia collective several years ago when Theis was looking to explore more delicate dynamics. “Violin, viola and cello, instead of blasting the audience with sound, invite the audience to lean in,” Evoniuk says. “We developed this sound that can be like an R&B band or a jazz combo. We can be totally acoustic, and Lewis has his crazy effects pedals. And Aaron Kierbel, our percussionist, can play cajón, or typewriter, or a piece of paper.”


For Wednesday’s show, Evoniuk plans to explore various instrumental combinations, opening with a duet then adding more players. She composed most of the material on Hitwoman Honey, including the politically charged “Refuge,” a piece commissioned by the aerial artist Danielle Sandia Sexton, “who wrote a whole show about being an artist pushed out of your own home,” Evoniuk says. “The initial piece was for solo violin and some violin percussion and I expanded it for Cosa Nostra Strings. Then I sent it over to Dublin, and he wrote this incredible verse.”


As part of the Jazz in the Neighborhood initiative to bring young musicians together with professionals, Evoniuk has arranged a medley of Irish tunes to showcase Berkeley fiddler Tessa Schwartz (who’s already a bluegrass veteran via bands like 35 Years of Trouble).


Evoniuk might be married to the mob, but she’s also a hired gun sought out for all kinds of assignments. Her bow is all over a gorgeous track just released by neo-soul star Leon Bridges, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand.” If you miss her at the CJC, she’ll be killing with the Cosa Nostra Strings at Strings in Emeryville on April 4.


-Andrew Gilbert


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