Live at Smalls
Throughout Tim Ries’ career, jazz has served as a useful launching pad, a touchstone. But when he leafs through modern jazz’s founding texts, the saxophonist isn’t searching for commandments or dogmas, just ideas. Before his latest release, Live at Smalls, Ries devoted his two previous albums to reworking Rolling Stones compositions. These records are diverse in a dizzying sort of way, not unlike Bob Belden’s 1991 disc Straight to My Heart: The Music of Sting, one of Ries’ first recordings as a sideman. They have about as much to do with jazz as they do with blues, funk, bluegrass and soft rock.
On Live at Smalls, the 52-year-old Ries leads an acoustic quintet and splits time between tenor and soprano saxophones. He’s put himself in closer contact with the jazz tradition, but still treats the genre as a tool rather than a domain. The first three tracks are Ries originals, ranging from swinging postbop (“A Summer to Remember”) to straight-eighths progressivism (“The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon”) to Metheny-esque folk resplendency (“New View”). The remaining two tracks are rooted in Western classical: a Ries arrangement of Franz Schubert’s lieder masterwork, “Death and the Maiden,” and a fleeting solo piano finale by Kalman Olah, “Prelude to Bach Cello Suite.” The quintet is rounded out by two longtime Ries collaborators, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Billy Drummond, and the ever-bracing tenor saxophonist Chris Potter.
The interplay between Ries and Potter is strongest when the bandleader picks up the soprano and clears out the lower register for his comrade. On “Death and the Maiden,” both sax men push with a common urgency, waxing gleeful and waning desperate. Ries’ more ornamental playing squirms and flutters, offset by Potter’s anchored, steelier tenor.