I am thrilled that Sunny Jain will be visiting Wesleyan University’s campus for a concert this Saturday afternoon and then coming back throughout the academic year for a residency. Best known for leading the band Red Baraat, he is a remarkable drummer, composer, dhol player, bandleader, entrepreneur, and activist. I also have the privilege of having been his friend for three decades now, so I can say with authority that he’s a great guy as well.
I first got to know Sunny well personally and musically in the summer of 1994 when he used me on a weekly jazz gig he had in the restaurant area of a Nordstrom’s store in New Jersey where we were both in college. Soon after, the collective quartet Positive Rhythmic Force (PRF) was formed and we started playing together all the time – hundreds of gigs and countless rehearsals over a five year stretch. We recorded two now-out-of-print albums and I am certain that if he had decided his life’s work was to be a straight-ahead jazz drummer, he would be successful and prominent for that. This era was also when I had the privilege of playing some of the work from his emerging pen, which represented significant highlights of the band’s large repertoire.
As that band put a bow on its operations, it was clear that Sunny’s path was to deepen his relationship with the music and culture of South Asia (from where his parents had immigrated) and broaden his musical palette and ambition. This determination led to the formation of the brilliant Sunny Jain Collective and subsequently his becoming a virtuoso on the dhol and leader and primary composer of the wonderful Red Baraat. He is driven equally by a fierce determination to bring his innovative musical ideas to fruition and a deep humanity. It’s not easy to make party music that also makes you think hard about the human condition, but that’s (at least part of) what Sunny does.
With this list I attempted to illuminate a broad range of his projects through the years (i.e. not just Red Baraat), though even this doesn’t cover all the bases. I also favored things that are in print and easily accessible so that those reading can dig as much as possible of this music. So here we go, in roughly chronological order.
1 ) “The Velvet Hammer” from Reunion of Souls by Sheryl Bailey
After recording on the debut album by guitarist Chris Bergson (more recently best known for his work as a blues guitarist and singer), the two appeared on this happening quartet album by Chris’s now-Berklee-Guitar-Department-colleague Sheryl Bailey. The record includes a version of Sunny’s tune “Scintillating Blue” (which PRF had recorded in 1997) but I’m including this Bailey composition instead to demonstrate how compelling Sunny’s pocket was (and, shhh, is) is as a straight-ahead jazz drummer.
2 ) “Silent Marches” from Mango Festival by Sunny Jain Collective
The Sunny Jain Collective, featuring Rez Abassi on guitar and sitar guitar, Steve Welsh on tenor saxophone, and Gary Wang on bass, was a force of nature, and it publicly announced Sunny as a bandleader and composer with a vision. This is a clever, soulful arrangement by Sunny of the traditional song “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.” We played this one together a bit with PRF (and indeed, I loved Sunny’s interpretation so much that I recorded it, under its traditional name, on my own first jazz album under my own name), but this is the definitive version.
3 ) “Johnnie Black” from Avaaz
This gnarly, hip composition (in tribute to India’s favorite whisky, something I can’t independently corroborate) is an apt demonstration of how tight and commanding the Sunny Jain Collective sound became over time. I can tell you this tune is hard, but boy do they make it sound effortless while injecting fire throughout.
4 ) “We Sinful Women” from Taboo
This is literally one of my favorite records of this millennium and was the album where I started to fully understand Sunny’s potential for injecting messages into his distinctive compositions, in this case shining . The core band, with Wang joined by Nir Felder and Marc Cary, sounds amazing, and the bulk of the album features multilingual vocal performances illuminating various manifestations of religious discrimination, homophobia, gender-based violence, and other forms of inequality in South Asia. This track features a moving vocal contribution by Samita Sinha, subsequently his collaborator in the project Tongues in Trees, that I’d call show-stealing if not for the exceptional work by everyone else.
5 ) “Open Your Eyes” (single) by Salman Ahmad of Junoon
Quiet as it’s kept, Sunny is a great rock drummer, and that is in evidence on this passionate song by the leader of Junoon, a Sufi rock band with which Sunny played for a time. The anthemic performance features a number of guest vocalists, including some guy named Peter Gabriel who apparently knows a thing or two about anthems.
6 ) “Halla Bol” from Shruggy Ji by Red Baraat
Narrowing down to three Red Baraat tracks was tricky and admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but this is the first of a few short-list favorites. This one demonstrates how propulsive their up-tempo songs are, buoyed by John Altieri’s sousaphone (indeed the direct inspiration for my wife Kate trading in her trumpet to become a low brass player) and features a burning baritone saxophone solo by Mike Bomwell.
7 ) “Gaadi of Truth” from Bhangra Pirates by Red Baraat
This album introduced Jonathan Goldberger’s electric guitar, a wonderful added texture that takes nothing away from the wind-and-percussion dominance. He and trombonist Ernest Stuart are each featured with wonderful solos atop it all. And, not for nothing, this song features possibly the baddest vocal-and-horn-section interaction since James Brown, whether on this recording or live.
8 ) “Ghadar Machao” from Sound the People by Red Baraat
This comparatively tame song (which is kind of like calling a 6’4” NBA player “relatively short”) revolves around haunting vocals from trumpeter and longtime core member Sonny Singh.
9 ) “Immigrant Warrior” from Wild Wild East
Sunny’s stamp as bandleader is indelible on most of these tracks, but this album serves as a next-level presentation of his eclectic sensibility. It is also a deeply moving examination of the life of his late father, Shri, who also serves as the titular character of this driving yet dark instrumental composition.
10 ) “Heroes” from Phoenix Rise
In Sunny’s own words, this multi-artist album “combines art, music, photography, food, and a belief in global citizenship by supporting social justice movements” and even offers with it (if you, gasp, buy it) a booklet full of vegan recipes in addition to information about the music. The whole project is, as is Sunny’s work in totality, moving, grooving, and eclectic, and this track features Shona (a language of Zimbabwe) vocals and mbira from John Falsetto, thought-provoking English rap from Malik Work and funky instrumentals by Sunny (on drum set), Tawanda Mapanda on saxophone, and Endea Owens on acoustic bass demonstrating that Sunny is still perfectly able to play with bass lines that come from strings and not brass.