Ditty Blei
Songlines SJ-1547-SACD

Breeding Resistance
Delmark DG-551

Activists working for social change might give their supporters a break from weepy folk singers and over earnest sloganeers next time they schedule an anti-globalization rally and instead hire Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls.

Judging from his song titles and booklet notes, Chicago drummer Sirota has as finely honed a commitment to social justice and against institutionalized oppression as any leftist spokesperson. Plus his Rebel Souls quintet is a top-notch aggregation that swings with wild abandon and manages to mix musical intelligence with foot tapping. Wasn’t it anarchist Emma Goldman who said she wouldn’t to be part of any revolution that didn’t include dancing?

Over in New York, meanwhile, Hilmar Jensson’s concerns are rather closer to home. The Icelandic guitarist, who studied at Berklee and has connections all over the so-called New York downtown scene, leads a quintet similarly constituted to the Souls in a program of nine of his own compositions. More electrically oriented and literally songlike than the 11 tunes on Sirota’s CD, they too move at an impressive pace.

However unlike Sirota, whose song titles reference, among others Mao Tse Tung, Black Panther Fred Hampton and Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, DITTY BLEI’s titles come from the mouths of the guitarist’s two toddlers. Considering “ditty blei” for instance, means “change my diaper” in Jensson’s 18-month old’s baby talk, the sounds have to be good to surmount their naming sources.

Back to Sirota. Another Berklee grad, he demonstrates his accomplishments as a percussionist throughout by varying his backing beat so subtly that the listener suddenly realizes how inventive he is without having been figuratively hit on the head with technique. Considering some of the tunes here have reggae, R&B and African antecedents, Sirota is versatile as well. He spent two years backing blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland, has been part of the mainstream Sabertooth Jazz Quartet for nine years, produces hip-hop sessions and has worked with everyone from mainstreamer pianist Jodie Christian to outside players like cornetist Rob Mazurek.

The Other Souls are pretty adaptable too. Best known are guitarist Jeff Parker, who has played with various Chicago Underground groups, as well as post-rockers Tortoise; and trombonist Jeb Bishop, member in good standing of a clutch of bands led by multi-reedist Ken Vandermark. Saxophonist Geof Bradfield’s employers have ranged from pianist Christian to Swing revivalists the Mighty Blues King, which also gave bassist Clark Sommers a recording opportunity after journeyman work with various mainstreamers.

Sirota’s post-modern approach to boosting the struggle against oppression is most obvious on “Chairman Fred (I Wish Fred Hampton Was Here)”, which mixes tapes of a speech by the murdered Black Panther leader with a hearty live vamp from the entire band. Reminiscent of some of Archie Shepp’s more overly political pieces, it reaches its climax when a knife-sharp guitar solo and double tongued tenor sax interlude is followed by the sounds of the crowd chanting “power to the people”. Earlier Hampton has prophetically stated “you can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom”.

Not that you should imagine that BREEDING RESISTANCE is all agitprop, however. “Huntsville, TX” may memorialize the city where the most executions in the United States took place during George W. Bush’s term as governor, but the sounds reference swirling sadness more than anything else. Sirota’s minor key blues line includes riffing horns, a B.B. King-like single string blues guitar solo, and his use of mallets on cymbals, bass drum and snare imparts the memory of a Native Indian ceremonial melody.

Similarly, “Saro-Wiwa” may have its origin in the execution of the Nigerian activist, but with a strong reggae backbeat — like the simpler “This is a Takeover”, inspired by the Jamaican films Rockers — it pulses as well as politicizes. Interpolating Bob Marley’s anthem “Don’t Give Up the Fight” into the basic tune, the performance includes some JBs style harmony. There’s a swooping PeeWee Ellis-like solo from Bradfield, a Fred Wesley blowout from Bishop and some chicken scratching rhythm guitar from Parker. “Takeover” features heavy reverb guitar effects, creating a hurricane-like effect behind shaking horn line and what could be the sound of the drum machine or maybe a mallet on the guitar strings.

More radical in his politics than in his music, most of the compositions on Sirota’s disc have a standard head-solos-head structure, but the strength of the musicianship is such that such simplicity works in this case. Socialism arises with the extending of compositional input, with each Soul contributing something according to his ability. Most impressive is Bradfield, whose “D.C.” is a fine replication of later period Don Cherry music. It features the composer on light-fingered soprano and some jazzy, Herb Ellis-like slurred fingering from Parker.

Moving from the political arena to Jensson’s nursery, the oddly titled tunes take inspiration from different sources: Balkan music, so-called avant-rock and Electric period Miles Davis as well as more codified improv. At times there are faint echoes of trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Tiny Bell Trio, which isn’t surprising since it too was heavily guitar-oriented and featured drummer Jim Black, who also plays here.

Black, whose own AlasNoAxis quartet includes Jensson, is one of the busiest of New York drummers, playing with everyone from tenor saxist Ellery Eskelin to pianist Satoko Fujii. Reedist Andrew D’Angelo has been featured in drummer Matt Wilson’s band, and West Cost bassist Trevor Dunn has been in combos lead by clarinetist Ben Goldberg. New recruit, trumpeter Herb Robertson has been honing his original style for years, playing with everyone from altoist Tim Berne and drummer Gerry Hemingway in the U.S., to Italian drummer Tiziano Tononi, Dutch pianist Michiel Braam and British bassist Barry Guy.

On “Correct me if I’m right” he turns in an expressive, half-valve solo, filled with burnished notes and chromatic trumpet tone. D’Angelo contributes a funky, smeared alto lick, complete with Territory band riffs that get stronger and throatier as Black becomes more insistent in his rhythm. Meanwhile, Jensson completes the piece playing rhythm guitar rock fills and begins it sliding up the nylon strings of his acoustic as if he was introducing a ProgRock ballad.

Jensson’s inner guitar god makes another appearance on “Everything is Temporary” where his droning reverb moves past John Scofield territory to wiry Prog immoderation. This is after he has shimmied and shimmered through the track, meeting up with some horn vamps, with faint trumpet tones in the lead, and discursive flams and ruffs from Black.

Other times the rock undertow is enlivened by a funk beat, as on “Mayla Mayla.” Here Robertson sounds like a muted, electric Miles, Black produces a double shuffle beat, and Jensson gives as good as he gets, with intricate finger picking that echoes and then matches up with the trumpeter’s brassy flourishes. Finally as the tune diffuses and liquefies around him, the plectrumist rings out guitar lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a Radiohead session.

Slurred fingering and fuzztones from the guitarist; corkscrew reed slurs and honks; powerful walking bass lines; and chromatic trumpet blasts enliven some of the other pieces — all of which the confirm band members’ technical skills.

In the end these two discs musically outline the 21st century conundrum for many. Do you stay cozily at home with your family, or go out and try to change the world? Both quintets present forceful musical arguments. It may depend on your orientation, but it appears that Sirota’s is the more convincing position.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Breeding: 1. Saro-Wiwa 2. Chairman Fred (I Wish Fred Hampton Was Here) 3. Knife 4. For Martyrs 5. This is a Takeover 6. Elegy 7. Breeding Resistance (AKA Paper Tiger Blues) 8. Huntsville, TX 9. D.C. 10. Axé 11. Pablo

Personnel: Breeding: Jeb Bishop (trombone); Geof Bradfield (tenor and soprano saxophones); Jeff Parker (guitar, Korg MS20); Clark Sommers (bass); Ted Sirota (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Ditty: 1. Letta 2. Larf 3. Mayla Mayla 4. Correct me if I’m right 5. Abbi 6. Grinning 7. Davu 8. Gobbles 9. Everything is Temporary

Personnel: Ditty: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Andrew D’Angelo (alto saxophone and bass clarinet); Hilmar Jensson (electric and acoustic guitars); Trevor Dunn (bass); Jim Black (drums)