Scenes: placing modern artistic jazz in an empathic trio setting.
The Pacific Northwest is full of jazz musicians who deserve more notice outside the region. The Seattle/Portland trio Scenes is one example. Guitarist John Stowell, bassist Jeff Johnson and Origin Records honcho/drummer John Bishop first came together, along with tenor saxophonist Rick Mandyck, on the 2001 album Scenes. Since that time, Bishop, Stowell and Johnson have produced four more releases under the nomenclature Scenes. The trio's 2010 outing, Rinnova, showcased the threesome's virtually telepathic interplay and writing skills. The new Scenes project, Silent Photographer, elevates the trio's style by offering room for both performance and composition, while also displaying the group's interpretative talents: three of the ten tunes were written by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane. Stowell penned three originals, Johnson adds four more.
One memorable translation is a reworking of Herbie Hancock's late-night ballad, "Chan's Song," which Hancock composed for the 1986 ?Round Midnight soundtrack. While this lovely piece is relatively obscure, others (including Bobby Hutcherson, Eliane Elias and Michael Brecker) have redone this track. Previous editions have usually featured keyboards. Here, Stowell utilizes nearly pianistic chords to highlight the picturesque melody and furnish a fresh approach. While Stowell takes the spotlight throughout, he never showboats, overplays or dominates, which is a trait which serves this and other material well. Another somewhat uncommon piece is Coltrane's "Resolution," although it comes from Coltrane's legendry album, A Love Supreme. Kurt Elling turned this into a vocal number a few years ago and Marc Johnson (with help from John Scofield and Bill Frisell) also tackled it. Scenes rearranges Coltrane's composition with a fast undertow where Johnson's nimble electric bass skims along beneath Stowell's otherworldly chords and then vice versa, while Bishop continually supplies a stimulating rhythmic foundation. The longest moment belongs to a traditionally-tinted version of Shorter's "Black Eyes," which Chet Baker, Phil Markowitz and others have also recorded. Johnson delivers a lengthy solo which proves why he is one of the best bassists in the Pacific Northwest and Stowell steps in several times to contribute shimmering improvisations.
While Johnson mostly employs electric bass, he switches to stand-up acoustic on one of his originals, the aptly-titled "Contours," which swings with abandonment. Stowell has a Jim Hall-like cadence and a few times he changes to a Pat Metheny-esque lyricism, while Bishop exploits his drum kit's upmost potential. Johnson's tale of friendship, "Companions," sets an exploratory course, where the three musicians outwardly work less as a trio and more like three artists who happen to be in the same room at the same time, not an unplanned determination but rather an aesthetic choice which emphasizes the musicians' collective improvisation.
Stowell's enigmatically named "Three French Nuns" also has a freely roving appeal, albeit slower than most other tunes. Stowell and Johnson trade curved lines with spirit and near the end Johnson strides forward with an unassuming but intricate solo. Stowell's wistful "Windchaser" has a similar resolve, where the trio responds back and forth with the melancholy main theme. Stowell goes acoustic on the elegiac title track, which finishes the album, and establishes a restrained mysteriousness, although the piece has a particular inconclusiveness accentuated by the lack of a compelling melody and by a curt closeout.