Tim Ries: It's Only Rock n' Roll, But He Likes It


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I'm not thinking of myself so much as a jazz musician, but just trying to be creative in whatever music I play and (the Stones) are allowing me to do that.
Saxophonist Tim Ries knows what its like to play with a big band. His first gig out of college was with Maynard Ferguson. More recently, he's been a part of Maria Schneider's critically acclaimed orchestra, including the recording of the multiple award-winning Concert in the Garden. But the big band he's with now has nothing to do with an orchestra or the number of members in the aggregation.

The "big" in this gig is two-syllable big. Bih-Igg.

Ries is out on tour with the Rolling Stones, the blues-based rock group that, along with the Beatles, was the biggest part of the British Invasion of the 1960s that changed the music scene in America for good. Legendary big, far beyond the scope of anything that exists in jazz today. The Stones is supporting its new album, A Bigger Bang, on a tour that will take it across the U.S., to Europe and South America. The mere announcement of it caused a stir in the music world.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts will bring backup singers and a horn section, of which Ries is a part. Even though it's a whole different world, Ries is no stranger. This will be his third tour with the Brits. He's done the last two —in 1999 and 2002—and was in rehearsals in Toronto for more than a month preparing for this one.

Making this one more special, perhaps, is the recent release of Ries latest CD, The Rolling Stones Project in which Ries, also a composer and arranger, has put together jazz treatments of 10 Stones songs and one original. It includes the likes of Bill Charlap, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, John Patitucci, Larry Goldings and Luciana Souza. But also participating were Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and three guys named Richards, Wood and Watts.

The cover art is a painting Wood did in the late 1960s, which he titled "Abstract #1."

Yup. Ries is in the bloody band, all right.

"They are very serious about their music and very serious musicians," says Ries, who was excited about the impending tour and not the least ruffled by a rigorous rehearsal routine that had the gang thoroughly going through 80 to 90 songs before working a final list a of about 50—new and old—that will be used during the tour.

"They get through a lot of stuff. We rehearse probably about eight hours a day. They go through a lot of music, somewhere between 15 and 20 tunes a night. Our first day of rehearsal was 14 songs. On the average maybe 12 to 15 songs every night. That's a lot of music."

"We'll have about 40 songs, maybe more," he says. "But that's what they will generally do is have that, and then alternate songs in a set. About 20 songs in a set list. They'll switch that up every night and we'll have 40 or 50 ready to go. Its cool. It's not like they do the same show every night. It's not like there's choreography. They do their thing."

Anticipation in the rock world is huge for the event and high-priced tickets are selling wildly. Naturally, the remuneration for such a gig is slightly more than a jazz gig. Ummm. Slightly.

"We're treated like royalty," he said. Ries joined as a pinch-hitter in 1999 and has remained, albeit the "new guy" because the Stones continue to use the people they're comfortable with, like Darryl Jones on bass, who made his bones in the jazz world with people like Miles Davis.

"They're great. We're all friends. They invite you to their homes for dinner. It's great. There are 90 trucks and two different stages. We travel on a private jet. We stay in five-star hotels. It's first class all the way. Not that jazz can't be first class. But this is a whole other thing. It's a production unlike like any other thing possible.

"There's nothing in jazz like it. Maybe Pat Metheny, and he has one truck with sound and lights, but it's a single truck. Weather Report years ago, but nothing like this. Rock and roll is a whole other ballgame. Stadiums are not lending themselves to a jazz quartet."

Ries, 45, has played with jazz luminaries like Tom Harrell, Phil Woods, Bob Belden, Al Foster—even a gig as a young man with Red Garland. And he has done pop work with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Blood Sweat & Tears, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Lyle Lovett. But the Stones are a different strata with the public. Be that as it may, and regardless of how one might feel about the music, Ries says it is not so far afield as one might think and the Stones—jazz fans are hip.

"It's not exactly like a jazz gig, but there is no set way of playing the tunes. It's different every night. Mick will let things open up a little bit. If a solo's going, he'll let it go a little longer if it's your groove and the audience gets into it. He certainly is one of the greatest entertainers and he knows how to make the audience stay up, keep up the intensity level.

"They're very open and they've been encouraging. Knowing I'm a jazz musician that has played rock and even some pop before. It's nice that they don't specify how you play. It's not like, "OK. You're playing with us. You have to do it this way.' I'm not playing solos thinking I have to play a certain way. I'm just playing who I am and they're very cool about that," Ries says.

The music, he notes, "is all rooted basically in the same things that jazz is. The Stones are very influenced by American R&B, Muddy Waters, American black music. Early blues and R&B, which is what influenced jazz as well. It's all rooted in the same place. Those are the similarities that intrigue me. Also, their songs are very open and they lend themselves to improvising.

"They're a band that likes to get together and have fun. At their rehearsals, they have a set list to rehearse, but sometimes they'll break into a little jam session and just play, which is kind of cool to see. After 40 years they still like jamming together."

That music and that spirit is at the core of Ries new CD. The tour experiences are what prompted him to slowly explore Stones in his own way, and the project developed slowly. The end result is a captivating interpretation of the songs. Virtually all of them save for one down-home version of Honky Tonk Woman"—subtitled "Keith's Version"—are different from the originals. It's the Stones filtered through Ries' creative musical mind and it's a good disc. The melodies are true enough, but the journey is different.

The project started out slowly. Ries recorded "Moonlight Mile" by the Stones on a 1999 recording. "It was a song I loved doing with the Stones. I played keyboard on that song. It was a beautiful melody, Charlie Watts played mallets. I thought it would be cool tune to have on my record. I didn't think much more of it than just that."

His producer suggested more, but "even then I wasn't so much inclined because the tour had ended and there was no tour in the foreseeable future with the Stones. Who knew if they were going to tour again? Once I got the call to back again in 2002, I thought maybe it would be cool to do these tunes. So I got the idea together. The first three songs I recorded with Brian Blade, John Patitucci, Bill Charlap and Ben Monder. I recorded those tunes right before the rehearsals for the Forty Licks tour. I thought if I'm going to do their arrangements, I really should get their approval and have them listen to it and see if they like the direction they're going with their music.

"They were very positive and encouraging and they said, "Go ahead and do it.' My intent was to have that band, then Charlie Watts as a guest soloist on a couple of tunes. Once I asked him, then Keith (Richards) got involved and then Ronnie (Wood) and Sheryl Crow. Then I realized it was no longer going to be just a little jazz record, it was a thing that was going to take months of planning and getting all these people together."

The end result is a project everyone seems to be happy with. Ries got a chance to do about 20 club dates performing the music earlier this year and says that Stones fans are showing up at the gigs. he hopes to squeeze in some dates in various cities during the Stones tour.

The album starts with a funky version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and into a swinging version of "Honky Tonk Woman"... Tim's version—with Watts providing a steady pulse for Larry Goldings' organ and Ries' sax. Recognizable, but a different interpretation. The difference is the strength of the album. "Slippin' Away" is more abstract, almost a Coltranish groove and Richards takes a melodic solo as Ries floats deftly over the loose rhythm. "Street Fightin' Man" takes on a Latin groove, with Souza's wordless vocal weaving throughout. The vocals throughout, are sort of subservient to the music—not a bad thing—except for possibly Norah Jones on a slow version of "Wild Horses." Lovers of Stones music should dig the recording, and it shouldn't be just for them. It's creative from the mind of a musician who is open-minded and into his art.

"I wanted to leave the melodies untouched," says Ries. "I changed keys, times signatures and groove."

The Stones like it too.

"Keith was very encouraging about taking their music and extending it. They were very encouraging. It's nice to play someone else's music and hear that they dig what you're doing," says Ries.

Jagger isn't on the record, but for no particular reason other than scheduling conflicts. "When Keith and Ronnie recorded, it just happened to be that they were in LA that day. The scheduling of everyone was crazy. Working out the time and everything was hard. I was going to send (Jagger) a track and have him playing harmonica. (but it didn't work out). Hopefully, if there's another one maybe I'll have him get involved in the next project. That would be great."

Meanwhile, Ries will enjoy the big gig and feels honored to be asked back each time.

"I'm not thinking of myself so much as a jazz musician, but just trying to be creative in whatever music I play and they're allowing me to do that. Even on stage with them they never really restricted the horn section or me as a soloist in any way. They never said, "Solo on this tune, but you have to solo this way.' They just let me play my thing on their music. They are open to ideas and suggestions and different musicians playing their music. Even with their arrangements on stage. It no longer has to be "this is a jazz group' or "this is a rock group.' Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter recorded with them. They're very open to having jazz people with them."

Ries' journey began in the Detroit area, the son of a father that played trumpet and a mother who sang. Ries started on trumpet, but soon switched to saxophone. "I still kind of toyed with the trumpet and to this day I still take it out and play it, just for melodic ideas. But my chops aren't up any more," he notes. he was listening to the likes of Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker for inspiration.

Ries was sitting in at nightclubs as a teen ("I probably wasn't very good, but they let me sit in and I learned a lot," he quips) and went to North Texas University, known for having a strong jazz program. There he encountered one of his key influences, trumpeter Donald Byrd who was at the university as an artist in residence for a time.

"I met him right away and he heard me play. He said "why don't you put together a band?' So I did all these arrangements of his music for a smallish big band, three saxophones, two trumpets, trombone, French horn, guitar, bass, drums and vocals. So we put this pretty creative band together and rehearsed and I learned a lot from him. During the songs, he would let me stretch and play. He was very willing to let me try and experiment.

"At that time I was doing a lot of transcribing of Sonny Rollins and Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. I was about 20 at the time. He said: "It's time you transcribe yourself. That's what Trane did.'

So I spent a lot of time with him. We'd go eat dinner together and lunch. He was very open to talking about music. Music was always on his mind. He always had his trumpet in his hand and he was always practicing, so it was pretty cool to have a legend like that early in my life. After that, I went right into Maynard Ferguson's band, which was segueing into another one of my heroes as well."

It wasn't long before Ries was making the New York City scene, his reputation as a quality musician getting around. He picked up work in a variety of jazz and pop settings and has found himself busy, especially with the Stones deciding to get back together.

For the foreseeable future, the Stones and his Stones project occupy his time. With Schneider's band getting a lot of acclaim, Maria has her band touring with more regularity, but Ries is going to have to miss out. But Ries is a fellow to watch, once the tour is done and the dust settles. There is more to come from this relatively young, talented and versatile musician.

"I'm disappointed I'm going to miss Maria's tour. Things are going well for her. It's probably her biggest touring year and I'm not going to be around," says Ries.

So, it's off to private jets and five-star hotels. Somebody has to do it, mate.

Selected Discography:
Rolling Stones Project (leader) (Concord, 2005)
Thought Trains (Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra) (Sons of Sound, 2004)
Live Licks (The Rolling Stones) (EMI, 2004)
Concert in the Garden (Maria Schneider) (ArtistShare, 2004)
Songs, Stories and Spirituals (John Patitucci) (Concord, 2003)
Real Standard Time (Prism Saxophone Quartet) (Innova, 2002)
Willow (Frank Kimbrough/Joe Locke) (Omnitone, 2001)
Black Dahlia (Bob Belden) (Blue Note, 2001)
Alternate Side (Leader) (Criss Cross, 2001)
Allegresse (Maria Schneider) (Enja, 2000)
Universal Spirits (Leader) (Criss Cross, 1998)
Daybreak (Badal Roy) (Igmod, 1997)

Imaginary Time (Leader) (Moo, 1997)

Secrets (Joey Calderazzo) (Audio Quest, 1995)
Coming About (Maria Schneider) (Enja, 1995)
When Doves Cry: The Music of Prince (Bob Belden) (Metro Blue, 1993)
Kamikiriad (Donald Fagen) (Reprise, 1993)
Evanescence (Maria Schneider) (Enja, 1992)
Big Band (Joe Henderson) (Verve, 1992)
Treasure Island (Bob Belden) (Sunnyside, 1989)
Straight To Me Heart: The Music of Sting (Bob Belden) (Blue Note, 1989)
Body and Soul (Maynard Ferguson) (Black Hawk, 1986)
Live from San Francisco (Maynard Ferguson) (Palo Alto, 1983)

Photo Credit:
Lourdes Delgado

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