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Sunny Jain: Wild Wild East (Smithsonian Folkways)

A review of the drummer's first album for Smithsonian Folkways

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Sunny Jain, Wild Wild East
The cover of Wild Wild East by Sunny Jain

Sunny Jain is rarely mentioned by jazz aficionados in the same breath as Vijay Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa as a leader in South Asian/American creative music, but he should be. The drummer and dhol (double-headed Indian drum) player pushes his own vision of South Asian jazz to audiences across the globe through his inventive group Red Baraat. The group’s shows feature an infectious synthesis of everything from Punjabi folk melodies, Indian brass-band (not too dissimilar from New Orleans) rhythm, and Bollywood earworms to Sufi devotional songs, Washingtonian go-go funk, and snaking improvised “jazz” solos.

The palette of sounds is similar but much more personal on Wild Wild East, Jain’s first album for Smithsonian Folkways (disclosure: this writer interned for Folkways in the summer of 2013). That’s because he dives deep into familial and cultural history. See “Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal,” a 1950s Bollywood classic that Jain’s father played regularly at home, now embodying hazy memories through ephemeral, fuzzy electric guitar; or “Hai Apna Dil to Aawara,” another cinema standard rearranged into a cowpoke’s campfire song.

Jain also draws on mystical Jainist prayers from his upbringing (Jainism is an Indian faith tradition dating to 3000 B.C. that preaches non-violence and asceticism). “Maitri Bhavanu” and “Tumse Lagi Lagan” are made even more awe-inspiring by vocalist Ganavya’s haunting cries. Visiting Jain’s home street in Rochester, New York (“Blackwell”) and his family’s traditional home in Rajasthan (“Osian”) both feel like acts of pilgrimage. Pawan Benjamin’s bansuri flute melody encourages the meditative aura on “Blackwell” while Grey McMurray’s guitar does a dance of victory with Benjamin’s sax on “Osian” (which also lets Jain indulge his love for Alex Lifeson-worthy riffage).

Wild Wild East is a tremendous document of the immigrant’s multifaceted identity, bringing generations together in a joyful noise.


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Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He graduated from Georgetown in 2015 with a degree in American Musical Culture and will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.