For this issue, Richard Boulger had an opportunity to sit down with saxophonist Tim Ries, a member of The Rolling Stones band and one of today's most sought-after musicians in the industry.
RB: Where and when did you first get involved with music?
TR: I was surrounded by music early in my childhood, as my father was a trumpet player and my mother and three sisters played piano. There was always a lot of music in the house and everybody sang. My father was very good at harmonizing, so my sisters would sing the melody while he sang the harmony. I gravitated to him singing harmony early on and as I got older I would start singing the bass.
My father played in a band on weekends and he would take me to his gigs. Afterward, the band would come back to our house and my mother would cook food before a jam session took place, which sometimes lasted until 5-6 in the morning. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and play the trumpet, so I started playing trumpet. I also wanted to play piano but never took piano lessons. I remember I would listen to the piano instructor teach my sisters, who weren't really interested in playing piano but, meanwhile, I was.
My father would come home after his day job and he would sit at the piano and improvise and play these melodies. When he finished playing and got up, I would sit down and try to imitate what he did just playing by ear. I remember going to one of my dad's gigs and I saw a saxophonist play the tenor and thought, 'I want to play that.' So that's how it started for me. I started playing in his band when I was 10 and started on the C Melody, because I could play the piano music. I got an older tenor saxophone from another saxophonist in his band and then eventually got a Selmer Mark VI of my own in the 10th grade.
My father thought it was important that I also study classical music, so I began taking lessons at The University of Michigan with Larry Teal and Donald Sinta. At the same time, my dad took me to jazz clubs in Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Detroit where I began sitting in with great local musicians, many of whom were amazing Motown players.
Following high school I enrolled at North Texas State (now The University of North Texas) and studied with some great teachers like Rich Matteson, Dan Haerle, and Jim Riggs, where I received my Bachelor's degree. I moved back to Michigan following graduation with the ultimate intention of moving to New York City, but a chance encounter with my old professor Donald Sinta (the Professor of Saxophone at the University of Michigan), led to my enrolling at Michigan where I earned a Master's Degree in classical saxophone and composition. Donald Sinta is a true master and guided me with complete brilliance not only in the classical repertoire but also sharing with me his ultimate concept of playing music on the highest level of artistry.
When I finally moved to New York City in 1985, I became good friends with Michael Brecker. A decade later I moved to Westchester County where Michael lived and we began practicing together in his basement, sometimes for hours at a time. We would both switch off between playing drums, saxophone and piano.
Being in the room with Michael was somewhat like being in the room with Donald Sinta, in the sense that someone who is that passionate about music makes you feel like you are with some Buddha-like person. You're drawn into that energy and you leave the room saying, "Ok, I gotta practice."
Michael would constantly be trying out new saxophones, mouthpieces, and reeds that companies would send him and he wanted my feedback. That was my original introduction to Les Silver when Michael received a saxophone from Les. This was the early stages of the present-day Virtuoso saxophone. Following Michael’s passing, Les Silver learned of my close relationship with Michael and that I was going to Michael's house and practicing with him and that I knew the instrument. Les called me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming over and trying the horns and seeing what I thought about them. To his surprise, I told him I had already played the horn. It is very interesting how the cosmos works and how things happen for a reason.
RB: Do you have a daily practice routine to maintain your sound, facility and overall musicianship on your instrument?
TR: I don't have a typical routine. There were periods of time when I developed a routine when I first went to school at North Texas. I made detailed graphs for myself because of my busy schedule with classes and rehearsals that included which instrument I would play during specific breaks. As I got older and started doing gigs with a band, I had to practice the music for that band. There was a period when I was playing with Donald Byrd, at which time I was transcribing John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter solos. Donald heard that I was transcribing them but told me, "You have to transcribe yourself — that's what 'Trane did." With that advice, I began recording myself almost every day and I'd practice for ten to fifteen minutes and listen back while critiquing my playing. While listening back, you're asking yourself, 'How is my pitch?' 'How is my time?' I just played something that's interesting, so I would transcribe what I thought was more unique to me and what was my language. I could spend my entire life trying to sound like Coltrane, Michael Brecker, or Bird — any of the masters — but I would still always be a second-rate Coltrane, etc. I still want to learn from them, but you then have to learn from yourself. What is it that you are playing on your instrument that is uniquely you that you are hearing? So that's how I started transcribing myself and picking apart what's unique to me.
RB: What are some core principles and basic building blocks you could offer to students learning to improvise?
T.R: It's a life-long learning process but on a basic level, it's about learning any foreign language — you have to listen to it a lot to be able to articulate it. In other words, if you want to play jazz, you have to listen to a lot of jazz. Sometimes while conducting a clinic I'll ask students, "Who do you listen to?" Through listening, you begin to emulate the musicians you admire. For me they were Dexter Gordon and Stanley Turrentine. They were my early heroes because their music was very accessible and I could get at it way more than say late Coltrane or late Wayne Shorter. Since I liked trumpet, I listened to Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Clifford Brown. Louis Armstrong was my first hero because my dad had Louis Armstrong albums. Then make the decision you are going to practice, transcribe and imitate your heroes. So that is one of the first steps and the technique comes through that. Michael Brecker told me how Bob Berg could take a Coltrane album, drop the needle at any point along the Coltrane solo and he could just start playing along with it. He was that brilliant and had so much in his vocabulary, so developing a vocabulary is HUGE.
Growing up in the Detroit area I was able to hear great musicians live and that impressed me greatly. My father would take me to hear Duke Ellington's band and Woody Herman's band and I'd hear these great soloists, like Paul Gonsalves. That inspires you to want to do it and eventually, you want to break out and develop your own voice.
RB: What's happening right now for Tim Ries?
TR: I’m still touring with The Rolling Stones and have been traveling often to Europe where I have been playing with a group of musicians from Budapest called the East Gipsy Band. We have an HBO documentary about this group that's going to be coming out. I also play a lot with a Flamenco dancer in Spain named Sara Baras. I've just released a CD on the "Smalls" label, "The Tim Ries Quintet, Volume 2".
I am continuing to perform concerts with the Rolling Stones project group that are my jazz and world music arrangements of Rolling Stones classic material for small-group, orchestra and big band. Finally, there is a group I have formed with members representing many countries and religions. We are going to be touring with the band and then going into schools and doing workshops with the focus on Music for Peace.
Tim Ries plays on RS BERKELEY's Virtuoso Alto and Tenor saxophones and Volare flute.