The Northwest trio/quartet Scenes dates back twelve years or so prior to their 2001 album debut. Over the years, the band became a trio featuring guitarist John Stowell, bassist Jeff Johnson, and drummer John Bishop due to injuries that forced tenor saxophonist Rick Mandyck into a fourteen-year hiatus from playing the saxophone.
Mandyck returned to the band's recordings and live performances in 2019, culminating in the Origin Records release Trapeze in 2020. His sonic presence is felt strongly on the latest Origin release, recorded live at the Earshot Jazz Festival at the acoustically fit Forum at Town Hall. His contributions as a composer include "Tilbury Hill" and the title track. The latter features Johnson's dark bow work and contemplative pizzicato blending with Bishop's brushwork to provide a perfectly layered canvas for Stowell and Mandyck to melodically interact. The former is more straight-ahead, with Stowell comping sparingly, providing harmonic context to Mandyck's beautiful melody and spontaneous improvisations.
Johnson's compositions are an open door harmonically, as exemplified by "Studio City." The piece opens with his solo that includes gorgeous vibrato and crunching chordal assertions. Bishop's precision work and Stowell's sparse, orchestral comping opens the piece to free interpretation. Solo work by the guitarist and Mandyck's soaring tenor brings a sonically eclectic component to the tune that allows it to unleash any notion of restraint.
Mandyck's melancholic rendition of the Rogers/Hart classic, "It's Easy to Remember'' is perhaps the most memorable of the nine tunes presented on the recording, if only for the tenorist's classic tone and reflective interpretation of the melody. His reworking of the ballad brings with it an understanding of the oneness of the melody and the lyrical narrative within.
Stowell's "When Jasper Grows Up" features the melody stated by the guitarist and Mandyck, with Stowell's solo performed in his definitive style, blending colorful, melodic passages with the harmony always present in the form of his masterful chord work. His instinctive ability to add and subtract harmonically, while presenting linear snapshots of the melody is unsurpassed in the annals of modern jazz guitar.
Variable Clouds: Live at the Earshot Jazz Festival is an assemblage of four friends; four adventurous musical minds still ascending to their collective, creative peak without any idea of settling comfortably into their veteran, iconic status. In the end, it may be their most satisfying release to date, best putting on display the band's spontaneous notions with Mandyck front and center. Masterfully recorded by Dave Dysart, the listener is put directly into the vibe of that October evening in 2021, when the Earshot Jazz Festival had at last returned to live audience performances.