But Ries is first and foremost a jazz player, with impressive bona fides. A lithe improviser with a warm, penetrating sound and a strong compositional voice, Ries has a trio of well-received albums as a leader to his credit, as well as a history of fertile musical relationships with trailblazers like Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman. But the Detroit native and current New York City resident also got in early work with pop and soul figures like David Lee Roth and Stevie Wonder, and he had already put in studio time for the Stones when he received the invitation to join their onstage horn section. He's now on his third Stones caravan.
Given all this, it seems logical that Ries' Rolling Stones Project has a more organic feel than many other "jazzman goes rock" attempts that have come along.
"It does feel genuine to me," Ries said recently by phone from Philadelphia, a stop on the Stones' current arena tour. "I know the music, I'm playing with the band. Not that I consider myself an authority on Rolling Stones music, but after playing the songs hundreds of times, I certainly have an association with it."
The quality of Ries' backing musicians is a key factor. Recorded during five separate sessions over a year and a half, the album features a shifting lineup of exquisite jazz artists, highlighted by organist Larry Goldings, pianist Bill Charlap, guitarist Bill Frisell, and drummer Brian Blade, plus real-life Rolling Stones Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and, on one track, Ronnie Wood.
The CD is a mixed bag stylistically, jumping out of the gate with a '70s gut-bucket blues-funk groove on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" that includes stirring solo work from guitarist John Scofield. Next comes a classic organ trio rave-up on "Honky Tonk Women" (the first of two versions of the song), with Goldings and Watts swinging smartly with Ries' high-spirited tenor. A Brazilian rendering of "Street Fighting Man" diverges almost entirely from the number's original feel, but coalesces in fine style around Ries' dancing soprano sax and a vital, probing solo from pianist Edward Simon. Frisell and Ries hook up for a lovely duet rendering of "Ruby Tuesday," and the guitarist's edgy introspection adds a subtle gravity to "Waiting on a Friend." A gospel call and response between Ries and vocalist Lisa Fischer opens the second version of "Honky Tonk Women," before Richards' familiar, deep-throated chord work and Watts' rock-solid backbeat turn the number into a straight blues shouter.
But the CD's most inspired moments arise from the extended explorations of "Paint it Black" and "Gimme Shelter," both of which feature Ries with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist John Patitucci, Charlap and Blades ("Gimme Shelter" also includes Fischer on vocals and Michael Davis on trombone). Both songs present improvisational illuminations of new territory within the source material, yet remain haunt- ingly familiar.
"Most jazz musicians," Ries says, "myself included, have done a lot of playing on the standards of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. They lend themselves to jazz because they have a lot of chord changes. But in rock 'n' roll, there's less movement harmonically. The Stones songs are cool because the chord structures allow me to add rather than to take away. Instead of taking a Cole Porter song and deconstructing it, I can take a Stones song and just use the melody, adding my own flavors and my own harmonies to it. In that way, this music is very open for me, and allows some great, free improvisation."
As Ries moves about with the Stones, the personnel of the jazz group by necessity adjusts from town to town. For his upcoming gig at Yoshi's, he'll have Goldings on organ, vocalist Bernard Fowler and trombonist Michael Davis (both Ries' mates on the Stones tour), guitarist Adam Levy, and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Ries sees the evolving lineups as a strength, rather than a handicap.
"Everybody brings their own flavor to it, and that keeps the music fresh," he says. "Adam Levy is going to have a different approach than Ben Monder. What Larry Goldings plays on organ is going to be different than what Bill Charlap plays on piano. I want everyone to do their own thing, to put a distinct spin on things. We take the tunes, and everybody has fun with them."