S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2017 (Part 3 of 4, Avant Garde + Experimental): Sexmob, Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook

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Here’s the part of the annual Best of 2017 lists that’s the most fun to pull together. “Avant Garde and Experimental” means “anything goes” to me, and that’s where much of the really unpredictable, alien and creative music happens. Some of that music is really just jazz stretched to its outer limits and others are truly unique ideas that can’t be slotted anywhere else. Originality goes a long way toward getting a salute in this space, and when surveying the current field I find there is no shortage of musicians willing to put fame and fortune secondary to making art that challenges and stimulates open-minded listeners.

There were plentiful selections — fifteen in all — and yet some very fine ones didn’t make it on here that in another year probably would have; click here to peruse all the avant-garde and experimental records recently reviewed in 2017, and you’ll find some of the genre’s big names with substantial contributions not on this page.

With links to full reviews nested in the titles, you can get the full lowdown on what made each release rave-worthy. The album I felt was deserving of the greatest rave was by someone very few have heard of at the beginning of 2017 but with an staggeringly good debut record, everyone should be talking about her now…


Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die: Now ensconced in New York, Jaimie Branch brings a lot of Chicago’s vibrant brand of improvised music with her. Accordingly, the trumpeter, composer and bandleader’s debut album blends of free jazz, RnB, and calypso, but with an extra set of contours that reflect Branch’s classical and indie rock backgrounds. Her band features fellow Windy City ex-pats Tomeka Reid (cello), Jason Ajemian (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums), who all know intuitively just where the song should be and where it should be headed.

Branch’s decisiveness manifests itself from the first notes uttered on her trumpet monologue “Jump Off” and when the rest of the quartet joins her for “Theme 0001,” that horn pierces with stinging clarity against a wound-tight groove that manifests itself in several other places on this album. Pairing Reid with Ajemian was a master stroke, as the two form a lower-timbre bedrock that leaves virtually the entire world for Branch to exploit. She mixes up those grooves with adventures like short, solo statements (“Fly Or Die”, “Jump Off”), a ghoulish rattle (“The Storm”), and free association (“…Meanwhile”). Some ideas might be borrowed but the presentation is always fresh.

Jamie Branch has made records before, she just hadn’t put them out because she didn’t think they were up to standard. Fly or Die has set a very high standard for her and if this is only her Chapter One, I can hardly wait to hear the rest of this book.


Sexmob – Cultural Capital: Long known as jazz’s most mischievous covers band, Steven Bernstein’s Sexmob now takes deadly aim at its own material.

Elliott Sharp, with Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot – Err Guitar: Three masters of the outside guitar pushing each other to go even further out, making this a notably delirious entry in the catalogs of all of them.

Raoul Björkenheim / eCsTaSy – Doors Of Perception: With eCsTaSy now six years running, Raoul Björkenheim decided to fully harness the trust built up with eCsTaSy over that time and ‘Doors Of Perception’ is the triumphant result.

Vinnie Sperrazza Apocryphal – Hide Ye Idols: Sperrazza and his audacious crew once again stretch jazz across multiple red lines and force people to rethink what defines that idiom.

Dan Blacksberg – Radiant Others: Here is a fresh, nontraditional take on traditional melodies that happens to be Jewish in origin. You don’t need to be an ethnomusicologist to enjoy this one.

Philipp Gerschlauer and David Fiuczynski – Mikrojazz: Neue Expressionistische Musik: Gerschlauer and Fiuczynski getting together for this project took microtonal music to new places, and there’s never a dull moment.

Vector Families – For Those About to Jazz/Rock, We Salute You: While it really has nothing to do with AC/DC, Vector Families has that kind of intensity level and spunk. Only with way more improvised gumption.

Satoko Fujii w/ Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura, Ikue Mori – Aspiration: Four masterfully intuitive musicians who regularly aspire for greater heights with each venture reach the summit together.

Brandon Seabrook – Die Trommel Fatale: Always crazy like a fox, Seabrook might have again made radical art here, but it’s art with plenty of purpose, vision and balls.

Toxic: Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, William Parker – This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People: A set of performances that succeed because the Toxic musicians place all trust on instinct and the instincts of others.

Jü – Summa: Jü is a band with plenty of potency with the intelligence of knowing when and where to apply it. Summa builds on that solid start with Kjetil Møster to take their game up even higher.

Matt Nelson, Tim Dahl, Nick Podgurski – GRID: Describing GRID as “guttural” is a modest way to put it, but scary music created on the fly has rarely sounded so sweet.

Mary Halvorson and Sylvie Courvoisier – Crop Circles: A meeting of two of the brightest minds on the edgier side of jazz today produces music that’s astonishing both in its fluency and ceaseless ingenuity.

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot: Not your common minimalist record, and even those who hadn’t embraced that style of music could be drawn to the strange peacefulness wrung from a prepared piano.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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