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Michael Moore Fragile Quartet
Live in Chicago
Ramboy 32

Michael Moore
FELIX Quartet
Ramboy 33

                                                                                                                                  ©Cees van de Ven

Composer, clarinetist, alto saxist and Amsterdam mainstay Michael Moore has his in side and out side, and while lines of demarcation frequently blur, his records may tip toward one or the other. So it goes on two 2014 quartet performances new on his Ramboy label. They are also testaments to Moore’s 40-year collaboration with fellow expat and Northern Californian Michael Vatcher.

Moore’s main in-semble since 2007 is the Fragile Quartet, with a couple of conservatory-trained players a generation younger than the Michaels, pianist Harmen Fraanje and bassist Clemens van der Feen. The leisurely Live in Chicago is their fourth Ramboy (after Fragile, Amsterdam and Easter Sunday), nicely recorded by David Zuchowski before a considerately quiet audience at A’dammers’ newest second home, Constellation.

The leader’s clarinet ballads have a calm depth and beauty he’d been honing before he heard Jimmy Giuffre’s melancholy little groups – not that Moore didn’t take to that music when he did hear it. Any listener longing for clarinet in a Giuffrean vein should delve deep into the Ramboy catalog (starting, say, with the 1993 Moore-Fred Hersch-Mark Helias trio Chicoutimi). Moore’s round full-moon chalumeau tone may be the loveliest clarinet sound around, but he doesn’t shy away from the upper register the way Giuffre did, and he’s got a scrappier sensibility. There are a lot more birdcalls in his conception; the avian abstractions can give spare bits a Morton Feldman bite (“Gauzy”) or cool distance (“Go to gate,” “In the moon”). The rhythm players are crucial to those effects; Fraanje and Van der Feen show commendable restraint – no agoraphobia – and the touch to dramatically foreground or background their contributions in the moment.

“Sonora” is that plaintive sonority with a beat, from Vatcher on what sounds like his egg-sized shakers, before he raises up his trademark hollow-platform march beats and crossed-up cross-rhythms. The drummer likes very small and quiet gestures, but when he puts the pots on in a straight ahead setting, he can be an effectively disruptive presence, careening a little within his lane. He has a very elastic ride cymbal beat. Vatcher loves a broad range of percussive possibilities, lugging around a dulcimer/zither to hammer on, or to rotate a cymbal against the strings. He uses it to shimmering effect on “A few seconds (of overwhelming harmony)” where clarinet’s backed by high pure long tones involving EBows that set strings a-humming, and Van der Feen’s precisely bowed bass harmonics.

“Triptych” begins with an ascending minor third sounded three times, revamping the start of “Mood Indigo.” That triptych’s other panels are an Iranian/Irish jig with dulcimer sounding like a santur, and a stage-exit sleepwalk. The plaintive, out of tempo first section of “Seascape,” before the kicking main theme, functions like the introductory verse of a Broadway ballad (though it comes back at the end, un-versy). As “Seascape” demonstrates Moore can be lyrical on alto too, but he also uses it when he needs an abrasive edge or razzing tone – as on “Boogie man,” one of his grand swingers, catchy and a little sarcastic.

If Live in Chicago favors clarinet, the rowdier FELIX Quartet belongs to Moore’s alto. That band is a fresh mix of old faces: Vatcher, Wolter Wierbos who’s played with Moore in half the bands in Holland, and bassist Wilbert de Joode – oddly enough making his first appearance on a Moore record, after sharing two decades in Eric Boeren’s quartet and umpty-zillion Tuesday nights improvising at A’dam institution Zaal 100, where Vatcher is also a regular. Indeed this happy foursome is like a Zaal 100 improvising group dragooned into playing tunes, and relocated to the Felix Meritis, a lovely old theater with woody ambience that the band uses to its advantage. Sounds coalesce and disperse in space.

A few pieces slowly build from a very quiet start, perhaps with Vatcher pursuing some gambit at ant-farm volume; the theme might only emerge midway through. In such a loose and open setting you can’t do better than have Wierbos as your second. Nobody shadows quite like him – he doesn’t just zero in on (or just off) your pitch, he’ll meld (or mess) with your tone and vibrato too. That can make for some undulating two-horn theme statements and effectively grinding voicings. In collective space, if Wierbos hears a hole he’ll plug it, swooping out of the background to inject a phrase, and maybe recede just as quickly (to listen for his next opportunity). On “Tis Abay” – with dulcimer as Persian santur again, adding to a Mideastern effect – Wolter rushes pure air through the horn, the way Moore will, a sound like weather coming in: music from and for a rainy town. The trombonist hears sliphorn sonics from country brass bands to Nanton to Mangelsdorff, and can make you hear all that at once (and much else) behind his line.

Moore’s tunes shunt them into varied areas; pithy themes will punctuate and subtly shape the blowing. “Lower 40”’s galumphing staccato brings out Wilbert’s popcorn-popper pizzicato. With 1001 Zaal 100 nights behind them, the bassist and drummer hook up in myriad effortless ways, and never throw each other off, despite their idiosyncrasies. De Joode isn’t much for drawing on blues phraseology, so it’s funny to hear him pound a Willie Dixon-ish riff on “Big Day,” where Wierbos howls and yelps a like a dog left out in the rain – one suspects, like some very specific dog he’s overheard. Michael Moore in his solo quotes the first line of “Summertime,” unafraid to go there.
–Kevin Whitehead

Gerry Hemmingway and Auricle Records

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