A Fireside Chat With Tim Ries
“ I am also enjoying simpler melodies from playing with the Stones... There is something brilliant about the way it is presented and it gets to a point in two or three minutes. ”
The saxophone is a brutal instrument in jazz. Certainly, the trumpet is the hardest to play (e.g. Freddie Hubbard). But the saxophone, especially the tenor, has a legacy too intimidating for me to wish to play the horn. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Lester Young, Albert Ayler, and I could write a book, are not easy artists to follow.
Tim Ries has taken his time, which shows his respect for the legacy and his maturity as a leader, in documenting his own music. While his peers were recordings one sub-par album after another, Ries is only now about to releases what amounts to his third (if you get technical, fourth) album as a leader. I admire patience. It is a virtue this time and this music certainly could use more of and Ries seems to have it. Folks, Tim Ries, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Tim Ries: When I was very young, my father was a trumpet player named Jack Ries. We grew up in the Detroit area and he used to play weekend gigs, weddings, parties, and that kind of thing. He was a very talented musician and so I used to go and hear him play from a very young age. My mother played piano and I had three sisters, who were all very talented pianists and singers as well. So the household was very musical and so I grew up singing and playing from a very early age. It was just part of my life.
I remember being five, six, seven years old and my parents would take me to the weekend gig and after he would finish the gig, they would go back to one of the guy's house and do a jam session until five or six in the morning and they would be cooking eggs and breakfast. I remember waking up on somebody's couch and hear this music playing or they would bring it to our house and set up and play.
I wanted to play trumpet like my father and I think he had this idea that if I played saxophone, he would be able to use me in his band. I came to the gig once and I remember seeing the tenor player and he was sitting in a chair and very relaxed and so I said that I would play that. So he got me a saxophone when I was eight years old and I started playing and started learning standards. It was a great way to be introduced to the music. But besides that, he also wanted me to study classical as well.
I grew up near the University of Michigan and so he took me to the professors there and I started studying classical saxophone from a very early age. So by the time I was in high school, I was gigging quite frequently. I started going to Detroit and sitting in with cats there. I could go and sit in with wonderful musicians who lived in the area. Those were the early years. After going up there, I went to school at North Texas State, which is now called the University of North Texas. After that, I moved back to the University of Michigan to get my masters in composition and saxophone.
My first gig out of school was I played with Maynard Ferguson for a year and a half on the road. During that time, we came to New York frequently. I always wanted to move to New York because of the music and in '85, I made the move to New York City and started the freelance scene here.
FJ: Having studied classical music, how have you incorporated that in your improvised playing and composing?
TR: Yeah, I definitely do and I am very inspired and influenced by classical music as far as compositions are concerned. Yet, as far as the jazz, I try to have the two come together in a nice marriage. It is one of those things, when I write a composition, I almost don't want to improvise on it. I almost want to have a thoroughly composed piece that the group can play, so it is not so much melody, chord changes, solo, and then melody, although I have certainly written a lot of those tunes too.
At this point, I am trying to get away from that a little bit and write more thoroughly composed pieces. It is one of those things that by being influenced by Charlie Parker, Trane, Lester Young, and all those people, I think at some point everyone has to go through that where you have all those people that are your heroes that you try to emulate and sound like them. I remember trying to play exactly like Lester on some melody or Dexter Gordon. I used to really love Dexter because he had a beautiful sound and his solos seem almost written out, they were so perfect.
Then at some point, I remember I was in Texas and Donald Byrd had been hired to teach there for a year. During that year, he was traveling a lot with the Blackbirds. This was in '82. He wanted to start a band and he heard me play and we started talking and he asked me to put a band together. I was playing and at that time I was really into Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and he said, 'You have to spend more time transcribing yourself.'
He said that that was what Trane did. At some point, you have to make that separation and make the leap into this is your voice and this path is yours. Most of that comes through composition because to me, Wayne Shorter is a great example of that. He is one of the greatest composers ever and his music and playing are one in the same. His influence on Miles in that band clearly changed the course of music.
FJ: That mantra is evident on your Criss Cross sessions, Universal Spirits and Alternate Side, but what would you say is your compositional style?
TR: You know, Fred, it is one of those things where for many years, I had written a lot of music in a structure in dense, thicker voices and harmonies and much more vertical. I had studied composition with Bob Brookmeyer, who is one of the great composers and performers. The year and a half that I spent with him was fantastic because his whole thing was the horizontal aspect of the music where the flow has to be the most important thing, the motion forward. So I stopped thinking so much about exact chord voicings on every single beat and let's make sure that the flow is the main aspect and trying to make that my focus. I am trying to do that.
As far as what my style is, it is really hard to say. It is one of those things where I don't even know myself. In a way, each time I write a piece, I am trying to reinvent myself. It sounds like a Tim Ries composition, however, it is still moving forward and it doesn't sound like what I was writing two or three years ago. That is the goal, to just keep moving forward.
I am also enjoying simpler melodies from playing with the Stones. Not that their music is simple, but there is something brilliant in the way that they write music in the sense that it is harmonically simple, but the structure of the song isn't complex in any way. There is something brilliant about the way it is presented and it gets to a point in two or three minutes. They present a great package. The song starts and ends in three or four minutes, whereas in a jazz thing, which has been my life, a song could last twenty minutes. There is something very appealing to that.
I was having this conversation with Bill Charlap after we rehearsed this music that I'm performing and just that aspect of American culture is that way. Everything about our culture like the immediacy of people turning on the radio and listening to something and if they into it, they are into in the first thirty seconds and if not, they will move on.
I have never really thought of myself as a composer thinking that way and I still really am not. I have never been that way about music. To me, the music comes out of me or through me, whether it is me writing it or some spirit. I just try to let it come out and edit as much as I can.
FJ: Although it sounds gimmicky, there is a certain cache to reworking Stones tunes and improvising over them. You're in an envious position, having the Stones gig.
TR: Keith (Richards) said that they wrote these songs and they were two or three minute tunes and they didn't stretch on them or do anything at that time. In rock and roll, that is not what it is about. But he appreciated what I was doing because he thought I was taking it to another level. It is kind of nice to get a stamp of approval from the guy who wrote the things.
I feel blessed to have the gig. They had the chance to hire anybody, but they were gracious enough to give me the gig. It has been a thrill. It is such an amazing situation to be out there with these guys. It opens up some other doors. Even with my relatives, I have been playing jazz most of my life, some fantastic people, Donald Byrd or Freddie Hubbard, but since I am playing with the Stones, pretty much everyone on the planet knows who these guys are.
FJ: The phone must ring off the hook for comps.
TR: It is pretty amazing, yes. It has been pretty good actually. Occasionally, I will get a call from somebody who I haven't talked to in a number of years. First of all, people assume that I get these comps and it doesn't exist. It is not quite that easy.
FJ: Does Richards look as old as everybody says he does?
TR: It is funny because the last day, we were in India and there was a flight that couldn't make it from India and Bangkok, so one of the gigs got cancelled in Bangkok. We had another day or two in India and we had nothing to do, so we were sitting out by the pool and I was sitting next to him and he was talking about all these doctors telling him that if he didn't change his life, he would only live for six more months and the next thing he knew, he looked in the obituary column and that doctor had died.
He said that people have been telling him for twenty years that he is only going to live another six months. I think he is so strong as an individual and he has lived life, certainly, to its fullest. He is just one of those people that is full of energy every second. He is listening to different kind of music from Africa, from India, jazz, everything. He checks out every single thing he can get his hands on. When you walk by his hotel room, there is music constantly in there. It is amazing, all the music he has checked out over the years.
He's a brilliant man and business wise, he is very smart. His constitution is amazing and in his head, he is so strong, he could live to be ninety. He just has that will of life. He loves life.
FJ: Has the tour been augmented to accommodate concerns with SARS?
TR: The only place it was cancelled was China, three concerts and that was it. So it was about a week worth of gigs and that was it. I think it was at the point that SARS was getting pretty sticky at that point, so they just thought why take the chance. We had done Japan for three weeks and we went to Singapore. Basically, we were traveling with a doctor who was in touch with the people and four or five times a day, he was calling to get the latest updates. The view was that it was certainly overkill because any given day in the world, if you look at the amount of people who die from regular pneumonia, it is more than SARS. They are freaked out that you can catch it so easily like the common cold.
FJ: The Stones do it first class.
TR: They charter a plane. Every country that we were in, they would just charter a plane there. But it is nice because they really take care of us extremely well. They are really very generous with how they treat us, great hotels. I can't complain at all. The gig is one of the highlights of my life. It is just a thrill.
FJ: Touring with a jazz group or rock band, either way, it is still touring and all the burdens that come with it.
TR: I think it is. It is different stuff on stage. I am not improvising on every tune, but I didn't come on the gig thinking that way. There are tunes that Sonny Rollins recorded with them and Wayne Shorter recorded with them and when they choose those tunes, it is great. People see you on stage and think that you have a great life. They don't realize that you are traveling around the world and you are not home. You miss your family. It takes a few weeks to decompress when you come home to deal with that reality.
It's great. I am not complaining. I am lucky to have the gig and it is a thrill, but the breaks are nice too, to be home and have time so you can appreciate both.
FJ: And the future?
TR: Of course, I have always been heavily influenced by Brazilian music and last summer, everyday, I was putting on Astor Piazzolla and totally submerging myself in his music. I wrote a whole series of songs. I have ten songs to record. It is not copying his music, but just being inspired by that music. I did one gig with that before I went off with the Stones. I am looking forward to putting that stuff on tape and recording that. I have a hundred other compositions that are ready to be recorded. I have a lot of stuff ready to go. I am trying to concentrate on the Stones project right now and have this released and do some nice concerts with this music.