- The group Scenes has released seven excellent albums over two decades of recording together, beginning with their eponymous debut (Origin Records, 2001). All of those are studio efforts. The group's 2022 outing, Variable Clouds is a first for Scenes—their first album recorded live in front of an audience, in 2021 at the Earshot Jazz Festival.
This is a return to the group's original line-up. Saxophonist Rick Mandyck sat out for a time due to health problems, leaving Scenes a trio, or a quartet with saxophonist Hans Teuber sitting in. But on Variable Clouds Mandyck is back; he returned for 2020's Origin Records release Trapeze, and it sounds as though he is back for good. He returns in fine voice, as he joins guitarist John Stowell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop, all players with long tenures at the Origin Records label, with Bishop the co-boss of the record company and, apparently, the head of the art department, designing almost all of the cover art.
The music is typical of Scenes—a robust saxophone and flexible rhythm section, with Stowell's luminescent guitar voice a prominent feature. The tunes come from the pens of Mandyck, Johnson and Bishop, with Rodgers and Harts' "Easy To Remember" slipped in alongside Jim Pepper's title tune, and Jan Garbarek's Witchi Tai To (ECM Records, 1974) serving as the closer.
The key to making a successful modern jazz album in the horn and a rhythm section mode is the group voice. Scenes has had a distinctive one from the beginning, and here it gets an even sharper focus. The live aspect of the set suits the group members, as they display an easy rapport that is fluidly conversational, slipping in and out of deep grooves and searching reveries.
The sound quality is sharp and clean, as good as anything that comes out of a studio. Put it on blindfold and Variable Clouds could easily be taken for a studio outing—and a top-notch, high-tech studio recording at that—until the low-in-the-mix applause at the end of the opening tune, "Tilbury Hill," comes in.