INTERVIEW: Tim Ries [of the Rolling Stones]

Pulling off a good cover song is nothing short of an art. Artists have been notoriously picky about who can properly cover their material, their reactions ranging from outright praise (Morrissey would often bring Smiths-covering soundalike bands on tour with him) to blatant character assassination (Prince wasn't fond of Alicia Keys' covering a B-side of his and was especially not too fond of the Foo Fighters' take on "Darling Nikki", even if he wound up covering a Foo song at the Super Bowl over a decade later).

Yet receiving the original artists' blessing is a wonderful thing. It's even more wonderful when you're able to get the original artists to actually play on the track, and all the more impressive when you're also considered one of the finest jazz musicians working today.

Tim Ries is the Rolling Stones' long-standing touring saxophonist, having traveled the world with them while also carving out a hell of a niche as a top-notch arranger as well. In 2005, he released The Rolling Stones Project -- an album of Stones covers done in a remarkable jazz context. So successful that album was, Ries would spend the better part of two-years working on its epic, double-disc follow up. Now, Stones World is finally here, and it's a world-beat affected joyride through the Stones' back catalog, Ries' interpretations coming off as both drastically different and ultimately respectful at the same time. It's a sprawling album (and yes, the Glimmer Twins themselves stop by to assist on occasion), and Ries was more than happy to sit down with Evcat to talk about his inclusions of French rappers, his multi-year journey towards this project's completion, and, of course, getting the reaction of the Stones themselves ...


>> Listening to Stones World is a remarkably different listening experience from the first Rolling Stones Project album; at first, I thought that the jazz interpretations on the first one made sense, given how many Stones' classics are based in blues dynamics. With World, however, there is a much stronger emphasis on integrating international flavor into the proceedings -- what were the challenges that you faced in interpreting these rock numbers into fado songs and the like?

The challenging part was finding the right song for each singer, the right key and then of course the actual arrangement. I really wanted to retain the melody but to alter the songs with the many different grooves, harmonies, time signatures, and even language. Once I spoke with each artist and we agreed on the song I began working on the arrangement. Often, there were only a few hours to come up with the idea as many of the recording sessions happened within a 24-hour period from the time we arrived in a particular city. Timing was everything, and a good bit of luck.

>> Of all the songs on this disc, I keep coming back to "Hey Negrita" as the most drastic reworking, even though structurally it's quite close to the original. You have African vocalists, a full band, Jagger on harmonica -- coordinating this must be a far cry from the tight group you formed for Universal Spirits. Given the African base of which you based this one, what were the criteria you had for assigning which world style to which song?

Yes, it was so not like any other jazz recording that I had ever done, whether it was mine or as a sideman. Usually, one would write the music, maybe have one rehearsal and then record 8 to 10 songs with a quintet in one or two days and then you mix it and put it out. This was a two-year process with 72 musicians and I loved every minute of it. Well, most every minute. In the case of "Hey Negrita", I had met these wonderful musicians in LA and sat in with them. As I was listening to their music I was thinking of which song from the Stones catalogue would be the most similar to that vibe. I met a number of people who went to Niger to visit the tribe and one such visitor was a filmmaker named Adrian Velicescu. He put together some truly inspiring documentary footage. I was captivated by the music and the desert and really wanted to find the song that most suited Tidawt. I went back to the hotel and listed to a few songs and Hey Negrita seemed like the perfect fit. I sent them the English lyrics, was then translated into French and then to Tamasheq, their language.

>> Most surprising on this disc was the inclusion of rapper FE on "Salt of the Earth", which -- now replete with harps and the like -- is something closer to an empowerment ballad. What inspired the use of multiple female vocalists on this interpretation?

This song, the arrangement, and the choice of many female vocalists in multiple tongues, as well as the rapper FE, was the culmination of the entire project for me. While traveling the world with the Stones I was so fortunate to meet and record with all of these great artists. African, Brazilian, Indian, Middle-Eastern, South American, Flamenco and fado, are a few of the many styles of music that have inspired me for more than 20 years. Most of the songs on this CD are either in one or two languages. I really wanted to have an arrangement that utilized as many of these places and sounds on one track. You are right when you mention an empowerment ballad. It seemed fitting to have all females. The world has been run, and poorly I might add, by men for far too long and it is time to pass the torch to the earth mothers. There were such positive vibes in the studio that day.

>> Upon the release of this new disc, you're playing a short series of shows celebrating its release -- what can we look forward in the live interpretations that will be different from the studio incarnations?

The CD release gig in NYC at the Jazz Standard, October 28th-30th, will have many people on stage and will sound very similar to the recording. In fact, all the vocalists from Salt of The Earth will be on hand. Some of the concerts will be with a smaller unit: at Yoshi’s in Oakland, Vibrato in LA, Martyrs in Chicago, The Firefly in Ann Arbor and Chris’s in Philadelphia. All the gigs will have great musicians like: Larry Goldings, Bernard Fowler, Darryl Jones, Michael Davis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Ana Moura and many others. All the live gigs will have different bands, except for Bernard, who will be on most of them. We open things up on the gigs and the players can stretch on the solos.

>> Most critically, what did the Stones themselves think of Stones World?

I think, or should I say, hope, they are cool with it. They seemed to have a good time when they recorded. Charlie played on quite a few tracks, Keith on two and Mick and Ronnie on one. It’s my second disc of their music and I hope that I did justice to their music.

>> You've played on releases from huge pop acts all over the world -- what keeps you coming back to playing with the Stones/covering their songs again and again?

I had such a great time with The Rolling Stones Project recording and there are so many Stones songs that it really wasn’t an arm twister. We have played nearly 50 concerts with the Stones Project Band around the world and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I love dissecting music and reworking the arrangements. More than anything, it’s the thrill of performing and recording with some of the greatest musicians in the world with some of the greatest songs ever written.

>> Finally, so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?

My biggest regret was not having recorded with my father who played the trumpet. His sound was absolutely gorgeous and could make you cry. I think that’s why I have no problem asking so many people and recording so much music. I don’t want to miss any opportunities to record with my favorite players. My proudest accomplishment isn’t a musical one, but my three daughters are at the top of the list. Besides that, I am elated that I can actually compose and arrange music, play the saxophone and piano and teach and make a living while doing it. Otherwise, I might have to work for a living.


Visit Tim Ries' website.