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Ted Sirota: Drummer with the Soul of a Rebel

By Published: April 12, 2004
Sirota has an education from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and cut his teeth with contemporaries there, as well as stalwarts of the Chicago scene. Jazz, blues, reggae, ska, rock, funk are all part of his bag. And it shows on his albums. Breeding Resistance is no different. The musicians — Jeff Parker on guitar, Geof Bradfield on sax, Clark Sommers on bass and Jeb Bishop on trombone — pull it off beautifully, never lost or weak in delivering each flavor. The horns particularly are brash, searching and expressive; the guitar constantly creative, whether understated or bold.

The beat of “Saro-Wiwa” is infectious, assisted by the horns before a funky sax solo and charging, twisting ’bone. (Bishop is something to behold on trombone). “Chairman Fred” and “Martyrs” are freer, the solos skipping through and over a mountain of Sirota polyrhythms. “Elegy” provides a luscious ballad moment. “This is a Takeover” shows the drummer’s love of reggae and is a superb mix of creative jazz horn lines over Bob-Marley-with-a-twist beats. The music is different than a lot of what’s being put out. But it’s par for the course for Sirota. His Naim discs have tunes by Ornette Coleman and Monk, and the originals, whether by Sirota or bandmates, show influences of sources from Mingus to Marley and from straight jazz to hip-hop. High-caliber stuff.

Sirota let the band know what the theme of the new CD would be, and it did not all come in under a rebellious premise, “but I like all the music that people brought in and that was the determining factor and not how radical the message was. I figured I’d bring enough of that myself to tie the record together, hopefully. I also felt like I don’t need to beat people over the head with it so much. So I’m running a band and I don’t want to be a dictator. I want people in the group to be able to express themselves freely as well.”

“I think that what I strive for in my band is to do something different. I don’t want the band sound like any other band. I don’t want people to listen to it and say, ‘They sound just like so-and-so.’ I want the sound of the band, the voices and the vibe of the music, to be able to tie anything together. So if we want to play some Indonesian music like we did on one of the records, and then something that’s influenced by reggae, then we can do it and it will sound cohesive because of the approach and the sound of the voices and stuff,” says the drummer.

“I feel like I have a pretty open mind in general. To me, it’s such a cliché, but music is just music. I’d much rather play with a good salsa band or reggae band or any kind of band than some mediocre jazz band playing standards with no arrangements and the same solo order on every tune,” Sirota says. “As I was learning the music, that really right away started to turn me off a lot: how people take these structures that had been embedded in the music just because, and were not really challenging that or questioning that. That kind of stuff gets under my skin. But I don’t really have any problem with a band that does just one thing, as long as they do it really well. When I have been criticized, it’s when people say I’m trying to do too much, or it’s not focused or whatnot. But to me, music is just music. I’m not the one putting the label on it. They are.”

Sirota’s influences come from the music he heard growing up outside of Chicago on the 1970s and 1980s. He dug classic rock. He played drums from the age of 10 and took both private and school lessons. As a teenager, he played in a basement band that did covers of B-52s, Cars and Sex Pistols songs. In junior high, it was “The Clash and Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, the English beat. Stuff like that. And then from starting to hear some of these British second-wave ska bands, like The Specials and that kind of stuff, I discovered Bob Marley and then I got really into reggae music for a long time.”

Jazz was more gradual, spawned not by anything he heard, in particular, but his desire for more musical challenges. “I started when I was 10, so the physical nature and the challenge of the coordination of independence of playing the drums is what really led me to jazz. There was a point where my teacher, she felt like she couldn’t teach me any more. I was at her level. And then it just sort of led naturally to playing jazz on the drums because it involves another level of independence and coordination. I was intrigued by that challenge. Then I started to check out the music because of that. It wasn’t like I just discovered Charlie Parker and never looked back. The instrument sort of led me to the music.”

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