The storyline for the Pacific Northwest-based band Scenes began in 1983, when drummer John Bishop and guitarist John Stowell began playing together in Portland and Seattle. When bassist Jeff Johnson arrived in Seattle in 1989, he began playing a weekly trio gig with Bishop and tenor saxophonist Rick Mandyck. Stowell, already frequently traveling abroad to play and teach, would drop by every so often to play.
The quartet wouldn’t get around to record until 2001, releasing Scenes on the Origin Records label Bishop had created with drummer Matt Jorgensen in 1997. Shortly thereafter, Mandyck exited the music scene, unable to play due to illness and injury. Scenes would continue to perform over two decades as a trio, releasing five more albums on Origin. On occasion, they would be joined by multi-reedist Hans Teuber, but generally the trio evolved outside of what would commonly be associated with a guitar trio. They developed an intuitive, free sound that in many ways encapsulates the Origin sound, steeped in the remoteness of the Pacific Northwest, embellished by connections in Chicago, New York and Europe. The trio developed as an equal partnership, with Johnson and Bishop having as much to say as Stowell. They largely performed Stowell’s vignette style pieces, and Johnson’s wide-open comps, designed for more free form conversation.
For their seventh release, Scenes once again becomes a quartet, with Mandyck returning to form after a long hiatus. He contributes five original compositions, all much like Johnson’s, enabling his mates to recreate at their whim. Mandyck’s distinct sound, very much lifted from the John Coltrane tradition, has a clarity and dynamic sense very much his own. With the addition of two of Johnson’s pieces, and the title track penned by Claudine Francois, Trapeze (Origin, 2020) reaches out towards the edge and defines itself within the risks and rewards the free spirit indulges.
Two of Mandycks’s pieces, “House of Ra, ” and the angular “The Reckoning,” produce the most open-ended playing on the album, particularly from guitarist Stowell. Long known for his colorfully melodic voicings, and precision playing, he spools out his solos to great melodic, spatial lengths. Johnson’s soloing incorporates fleet single note passages with exploding chordal clusters, all refined by his elegant vibrato. One of the true originals of the double bass, Johnson, in tandem with Bishop, possesses the unique ability to interpret time in the moment, and obliterate linear expectations. Intertwined with Stowell’s sparse comping, the harmonic and rhythmic firmament is fertile ground for Mandyck to play strong, rich, melodic passages in the open space.
Johnson’s “Highwaymen” swings ever so gently, while his “Pause” elicits a gorgeous interpretation of the tender melody from Mandyck. Both tunes draw strong reference to Johnson’s resume as a composer, with melody fragments that seem to be suspended in time. Every note Mandyck plays on “Pause” could be referred to as “the melody.” Much like Coltrane’s “Naima,” the melody itself is so spiritually bound, that any interpretation must in itself possess an essence of beauty that can rival that of the source. Mandyck’s playing fits that description perfectly.
The tandem of Johnson and Bishop has been well established in the groundbreaking trios of Hal Galper, Jessica Williams and Chano Dominguez, to name but a few. Both have a performance resume that includes dozens of tours and hundreds of albums. That special connection is truly “the enabler” on Trapeze.
Over the course of 30 years of friendship and of playing music together, much is revealed. Scenes, always seems to find a new and unique destination every time in the studio. It as well translates night to night on the bandstand. The addition of Mandyck is in fact, no addition at all. That sound has always been in the air.
“That was the sound that we always envisioned ourselves being. We just went through 20 years of wandering off in some other directions, doing different things. I think that connection with Rick just feels like home,” says Bishop. – Paul Rauch