The Unstable Ensemble is a five-person improvising ensemble originally hailing from the wilds around Bloomington, IN. Wielding several reed instruments, a guitar, and electronics, they survey the general area left in the wake of musicians like James Blood Ulmer, extending that tradition into more of a free improv territory while retaining a rock-tinged attack. Guitarist Jason Bivins has clearly absorbed not only Ulmer but also the tradition encompassing Derek Bailey and Keith Rowe (not to mention Hendrix), and seems to be the force prodding his bandmates away from "standard" free jazz improv and into the netherworld of post-AMM music. The saxophonists, on the other hand, tend toward another "traditional" path, albeit the tradition that extends to Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton. This apparent diversity of approach alternately provides pieces of interesting tension and some that go meandering. But unlike many likeminded groupings, the Unstable Ensemble parcel out their work in bite-sized chunks, so if one track doesn't quite gel, another is coming right up that probably works just fine. There are even rather humorous moments, as on "Creaking House," where they suddenly find themselves very close to Julius Hemphill's "The Hard Blues." Taken as a whole, 17 Ways is like a big, sometimes messy family gathering, with much good cheer and conversation as well as the occasional spilled glass of wine or hurt feelings. It's a fun disc.
AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick