By Thomas Staudter
It was close to midnight at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. As more than 53,000 unabashed devotees of the Rolling Stones cried out for an encore, saxophonist Tim Ries had one of those permanent mental scrapbook moments. Standing halfway up the long ramp that leads to the massive stage for the Stones' outdoor shows on their 2002-'03 Licks Tour, Ries awaited his cue to rejoin the band onstage. As he surveyed the yowling sea of fans, a big, beaming smile and look of fascination spread over his face.
Two nights later, the Stones, who were enlivening their year-long tour with a sporadic number of "club" dates, played Boston's intimate, 2,800-seat Orpheum Theater. Midway through the show, Ries stepped in front of the band's four-piece horn section and, illumined by a spotlight, confidently delivered a high-register tenor sax solo during "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," a Solomon Burke tune that the Stones recorded in 1964. His 24 bars of mad glory finished, Ries stepped back in line, got a pat on the back from trumpeter Kent Smith, and again his bemused countenance spoke volumes.
A 43-year-old master of more than a dozen instruments--he plays all the woodwinds and keyboards--whose career has stretched from classical music to pop, Ries is certainly no Stranger to landmark gigs. He has performed live from the White House in a 1998 national TV broadcast, worked on Broadway with Paul Simon in the Capeman musical and even backed Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop," on his 30th anniversary extravaganza last year. Known for his versatility and musicianship, Ries has made countless professional connections over the years, too, resulting in appearances on dozens of diverse albums, ranging from Grammy Award winners by Joe Henderson ("One of my heroes," Ries said) and former Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth.
Performing on stage with the Rolling Stones, though, tromps all this. Still, with credentials of the highest order and an abundance of musical opportunities in front of him, Ries' present situation nonetheless begs the question: What's a jazz saxophonist, or better yet, a talented post-bop practitioner and composer, doing on tour with the "World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band?" The answer is because he's having the time of his life.
"There's never been a band like the Rolling Stones, and playing with them is a dream come true," Ries said. "Sharing in the excitement that surrounds this band, on stage and off, is an absolutely incredible experience. It would be hard to top this gig: The only ones better for me that come to mind would be if Miles [Davis] were still alive or if Herbie [Hancock], Keith [Jarrett] or Chick [Corea] called."
And as dismaying as a year on the road may be in terms of being away from his wife (while she is expecting twins) and 9-year-old daughter or the wearing-tearing of body and soul, the travel accommodations with the Stones are, at the minimum, luxury class. The band travels city-to-city by private jet and stays only at first-class hotels. "I know what it's like to tour Europe for three weeks and play every night, but the Stones operate quite differently," said Ries in a typical understatement. "I don't care if you're Pat Metheny. Jazz musicians just don't tour like this."
Technically speaking, this is Ries' second stint with the Stones, having replaced Andy Snitzer in the horn section and as the extra keyboardist during the second half of the band's 1999 world tour. Several factors, however, have made this go-around decidedly special, Ries said, the chief one being that the band is proudly producing perhaps its best music ever in the face of high expectations from rock critics and fans alike. With Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both nearing 60, Ronnie Wood in his mid 50s and gray-haired drummer Charlie Watts already at 61, the idea that the band could still crackle with the kind of high-voltage energy necessary to rock the masses was an open issue.
No surprise, then, that a serious level of purpose--"and everybody fed into it," said Ries--was apparent from the start of the tour's daily rehearsals, which began in Toronto six weeks prior to the first concert last September. As a celebration of the band's four decades together, the Stones opted to perform a wide selection of songs that touched upon the various stages of their career. More than 125 songs were rehearsed before a final pool of about 60 were decided upon.
Ries is now more of a known entity to the band members; and one big difference from his work on the Stones' tour three years ago is that the present tour finds the usually reserved Ries getting some spotlight time. At Roseland, the site of the Stones' New York "club" show, Ries had his number called twice--on the Burke cover and on "Neighbours," the Tattoo You rocker. Ries said he didn't ponder anything special before he soloed, but instead, "tried to be mindful of everything that could happen during the solo sections of the songs and just be ready when Mick or Keith signaled to me.
"I love playing with these cats, and I'm just totally grateful for whatever solos they want to give me," Ries said. "When I get a solo, that's one less for someone else."
Exemplifying the "all for one" mentality of the band, saxophonist Bobby Keys--famous for his lusty honking on "Brown Sugar" and the de facto leader of the Stones' horn section--said that the solo on "Neighbours" was first offered to him, "but I told Mick and Charlie that I thought Tim could do a better job on it. I play rock & roll, but that's not always what's needed."
What's making the Licks Tour an unquestionably cool and inimitable experience for Ries is that he's also in the process of recording his seventh CD during it all. To commemorate his time out with the Stones, he's putting together a collection of Jagger-Richards covers. The idea grew from a nod of thanks on the saxophonist's last album, Alternate Side (Criss Cross), which was released in 2000 and included a fusiony treatment of "Moonlight Mile." Heeding Watts' advice to stick mostly to the Stones' more recognizable songs for the CD, Ries went into a Manhattan studio with Bill Charlap, John Patitucci, Brian Blade and Ben Monder several days before the start of the tour and cut "As Tears Go By," "Paint It Black" and "Gimme Shelter." Then he loaded up his iPod with hundreds of other Stones songs and set off to decide what else to record.
"So far my records have featured original compositions and one or two Obscure standards, which made the idea of doing a `standards' album a good one," Ries said. When contemplating some of the pop and rock songs he'd like to record, he kept returning to the different Stones tunes he'd played on the last tour. "And now that I'm submerged in their music, it makes sense to keep it my focus. After all, I'm playing with these guys every night, so it's easy for me to study how Mick and Keith phrase their melodies. And if I have questions, they're right here."