The promo text that accompanies the fifth album by Michael Moore’s Fragile Quartet states that the reed player’s music for this outfit is an array of “simple miniatures.” But the way the group moves from motif to motif provides persuasive evidence that their internal chemistry— communal mechanics, shared flow, call it what you like—certainly knows its way around wily elaborations as well. Perhaps not so simple. The two suites constituting the record’s first 27 minutes cover landscapes so varied and vivid they feel like a satisfying micro-album in themselves.
Of course, breadth is meaningless if there’s no there there. Worry not. Moore, a NoCal-raised boomer who has called Amsterdam home for decades, is teeming with there. Always has been. The string of records he’s made for his Ramboy label document an expertise in both melody and abstraction, and his work with ICP Orchestra and Clusone Trio reminds that whimsy is always a grin away. The Fragile Quartet is a fitting vehicle for the esthetic of gentility Moore’s been honing for 40 years. Switching between clarinet and alto sax, he works with drummer Michael Vatcher (Gerry Hemingway subs on this album), pianist Haarmen Fraanje, and bassist Clemens van der Feen to caress the tunes while probing the music’s options. The curt “Pussy Willow” bends in the breeze, blowing three ways at once. A nod to photographer Saul Leiter becomes chatty and aggressive, but that feels graceful too. The ensemble’s work may reflect its namesake, but its fondness for tension’s frisky side also raises its head. When a scrappy piano/clarinet exchange kicks off “A Little Box of Jazz,” it almost harks to that Braxton/Muhal duo disc on Arista we could all benefit from respinning [Duets 1976—Ed.].
Speaking of breadth, Cretan Dialogues isn’t the only Moore project in play right now. He’s also celebrating the arrival of Slips, a captivating free-improv outing with Hemingway and bassist Barre Phillips. As its four extended pieces unfold, we’re reminded that atmosphere can always be aided by architecture; the creaks and whispers are dark-hued and delightful. And if that weren’t enough, Sanctuary, his collab with the NDR Big Band, shows he has valuable ideas about scaling up too. Milking tunes from his back catalog (do check his Available Jelly work), Moore arranges them into adventures both plush and provocative. Pieces inspired by Dylan and Pascoal, moments that soar while still having chances to brood, a variety of propulsive moves by drummer Tom Rainey—the combo of radiance and sweep might have Maria Schneider looking over her shoulder. Long story short, these are three of 2020’s most mesmerizing albums.