Swing Time: Tim Ries

Jeff Tamarkin on January 14, 2020
Swing Time: Tim Ries

The Rolling Stones’ longtime saxophonist straddles the worlds of jazz and rock-and-roll, in both tiny clubs and sold-out stadiums.

Like many Americans today, Tim Ries holds down more than one job. One gig allows him to play jazz—primarily saxophone but also flute and keyboards— in small and medium-sized venues with his own bands and with other musicians, and to go into the studio whenever possible to make records. The other, which he became involved with more than 20 years ago, takes him around the world, playing sax in huge stadiums in front of thousands of avid rock fans, as a member of The Rolling Stones’ touring company.

Straddling those two worlds may seem like an endeavor that would cause a shock to the system, but Ries is equally comfortable in both roles.

“It’s a whole other thing,” he says about coming off the road at the end of a Stones tour and resuming his solo career. “The sound is very different and so is the vibe and the number of people and the fact that I’m playing more jazz-related stuff. Onstage with the Stones, I’ll be featured on ‘Miss You,’ soloing in front of all these people. But when I’m doing my own thing with others, maybe the song is 10 minutes long and eight of those minutes I’m being featured.”

Ries has learned much from working with the Stones, especially the importance of keeping in shape. “I just turned 60 this year, and I look at Mick at 76 years old,” he says. “Six weeks after going through a heart operation, he’s back onstage. What he does is freakishly hard—performing for two hours, running and dancing, singing and jumping without being out of breath. It’s because he works his ass off every day leading up to those gigs. So when I’m not playing, I have to practice every day and I have to go work out. Playing a wind instrument is good for the heart, too; you’re exercising every time you play because your heart is pumping harder.”

Sometimes Ries’ two parallel lives meet in the middle, notably in 2005 and 2008 when he recorded two volumes of The Rolling Stones Project, which found him cutting his own arrangements of such classics as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” For those two albums, Ries was surrounded by a crew of A-list jazz musicians like guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Brian Blade, as well as vocalists Norah Jones and Sheryl Crow. Needless to say, four guys named Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie also lent their services.

It was, in fact, Stones drummer Charlie Watts—whose own roots lie in jazz—who coaxed the others into helping Ries bring the tribute albums to fruition in a big way. “Charlie is such a sweetheart,” Ries says. “He’s the nicest human being ever. If you had an uncle or a grandfather, you’d want him to be Charlie Watts. He’s just so unbelievably giving of himself as a person and of his time.”

Once Watts committed to joining Ries in the studio for the first of the two albums, the drummer suggested getting the others onboard. One request was all it took before they said, “We’re in, mate,” as Ries recalls.

It was during the same prolific year of 2005 that Ries made another recording, a highly personal collection called Life Changes. His mother was very ill at the time (she passed after its completion) and Ries’ compositions referenced her and other important people in his life. His three daughters—Jasia and twins Bella and Eliana—were name-checked in song titles, and Jasia sang and played violin on the recording. Ries’ children were in stellar company— DeJohnette, Frisell, harmonica ace Grégoire Maret, organist and pianist Larry Goldings, and bassist James Genus were among the personnel—but the album was shelved when the saxophonist was called out to return to the road with The Rolling Stones.

“I’d already recorded it, mixed it and edited it,” Ries says. “If somebody had said, ‘I need the product’—I could have said, ‘Here it is, good to go,’ but they didn’t. I thought that maybe I should just put it out myself.” Because of his commitment to the Stones, he didn’t, but now, finally, 14 years after it was recorded, Life Changes has been released, via the Ropeadope label. Only one change was made: Jasia, who still collaborates with her father but was only 11 at the time of the initial sessions, insisted on rerecording her vocal on the track “Bella’s Lullaby.”

“Every song was basically written for a person in my life, or someone who is an inspiration. They all had a connection and an image,” says Ries about the music. A pair of covers, Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” and Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil’s “Amor Até O Fim,” were included because those artists also had a huge impact on Ries, while “For Elis” honors another Brazilian music giant who shaped Ries musically, the late singer Elis Regina.

Ries, naturally, is pleased that he’s finally able to present the music, some of the most emotional and virtuosic he’s released yet as a leader. With Life Changes out and the Stones off the road for now, Ries, who is also an educator, is using his time to explore some of the other musical pursuits in which he’s involved, including Budapest’s East Gipsy Band, recently featured in an HBO Europe documentary, and the Universal Spirits Ensemble, an international group dedicated to spreading peace through music, speech and workshops. (The multicultural outfit includes Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese, Afghani, Syrians and South Africans.)

When he’s not rolling with the Stones, Ries loves “being a dad, cooking and playing tennis.” But if, and when, they call him for another go-round—“Their health is good and touring keeps them alive,” he says—Ries will be ready. “Whether you’re a jazz musician making $80,000 a year or a rock star making $80 million a year, you’re still gonna play because that’s what you love to do,” he says. “It’s what we did when we were kids and what we want to continue doing.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.