If these four guys are not the best players in the Pacific Northwest on their respective instruments, they are all on very short lists. Scenes has made eight albums in the last 20 years. It was reduced to a trio, and remained so for most of its history, when one charter member, Rick Mandyck, had to take a 15-year break from playing the tenor saxophone due to health issues.
The news about Variable Clouds is that Mandyck is back playing tenor—clarion, powerful, thrilling tenor. He announces his return on the opening track here, his own "Tilbury Hill." His sound is commanding but never harsh even when he executes his signature intervals, leaping from lower register blasts to plaintive treble cries.
There are seven nice originals, but the two best tracks are standards. On "It's Easy to Remember," by Rodgers and Hart, Mandyck reveals that he is a closet romanticist. He marks out the melody with surpassing tenderness. John Stowell deepens the song's atmosphere with warm, glowing chords and flowing counterlines. Mandyck's aggression and Stowell's lyrical sensitivity create an intriguing aesthetic tension. Jim Pepper's "Witchi Tai To" derives from a Native American funeral chant. Scenes slowly, inexorably builds it into a hypnotic ritual with passionate calls from Mandyck at the end.
Jeff Johnson's poetic bass solos make you think of Scott LaFaro. John Bishop, in his unobtrusive precision, makes you think of Lewis Nash. All Bishop does is swing his ass off.
This album was recorded live at Seattle's Earshot Jazz Festival in 2021, in a medium-size venue. Engineer Dave Dysart comes in close for a vivid, visceral rendering of the four instruments and also uses room mikes for what he calls "a little glue and a sense of the space."