Sunny Jain Collective,
As Is
(NCM East, 2002)

As Is is the debut CD of the Sunny Jain Collective, which brings together two East Coast and two West Coast musicians setting out to produce a musical album that defies categorization.

The quartet's founder is percussionist Sunny Jain, a Rochester, N.Y., native, who uses music as a statement of his identity as an Indian-American. He has had a longstanding connection with Gary Wang, the ensemble's bassist. Jain and Wang -- who is from the San Francisco area -- share a fascination with jazz. The group's saxophonist, Steven Welsh, is probably the most all-around musician with wide-ranging musical interests and experience in a more commercial environment. These qualities have turned him into the glue that holds the more individualist and articulate styles of Jain and Wang together. The Pakistani-born Californian Rez Abbasi is Sunny Jain's latest discovery and the missing piece for implementing the project. Abbasi's musical background marries western guitar with traditional Indo-Pakistani popular music, of which Abbasi's father was a performer.

What Jain had in mind was a fusion of American and Indian musical cultures into something novel and groundbreaking; presenting music in a way that transcends "the restrictive borders of labeled genres." It is fair to say the Sunny Jain Collective has succeeded in that ambition. The result heard on As Is is distinctly jazzy, but just when the listener thinks he's got it, there is a unexpected twist where the performance either retraces to a pattern of traditional Indian music or enters uncharted territory.

Let me make a confession. I am not a great fan of improvisational jazz. This lack of appreciation is more due to a shortfall in my understanding of the genre than just a matter of taste. Most of the tracks on this CD have an unmistakenbly improvisational or, maybe more correctly, experimental character. To the untrained ear this can create an impression of the composition being disjointed, without this really being the case. Sunny Jain Collective's music is definitely for connoisseurs. A true appreciation for music like As Is needs to be developed, it does not occur instantaneous nor spontaneous. However, through repeated listening a taste for it can be acquired.

Four of this CD's nine tracks were either composed or arranged by Jain. Not surprisingly, this first-generation Indian-American percussionist has included two traditional Indian compositions, where the rhythm section holds the key, because Jain admits to being influenced by the sounds of the tabla -- the Indian drum -- from a very early age. Of these two Indian tracks, I preferred the last one, "Aap Jaisa Koi." It is also the title of a song from the 1980 Indian blockbuster movie Qurbani.

The title track is a Welsh composition and has become one of my favorites, together with Welsh's "MTA." Probably it is his smooth style developed while working with giants like Wynton Marsalis that sounds so appealing. Much more difficulty I had with trying to appreciate a track like "Blu Vindaloo," by Abbasi. In one of the Collective's flyers it says the group endeavors to "avoid clichˇs and keep the musical wheels turning full speed ahead." At times, this left me without anything to hang onto and made me lose my grip. A similar sensation was experienced when listening to "Horizontal Pathway." Call it lack of sophistication, but a well-chosen clichˇ helps me to maintain my bearings.

Jain says music helps him resolve cultural conflicts that are often difficult to reconcile, that it functions as a medium to heal cultural disparity he experiences in his identity. But I do not hear any dichotomy in As Is. On the contrary, this album makes a very consistent impression, because all performers seem perfectly at ease with the chosen style. Therefore, I wonder if such a perceived cultural split has ever been there or could have been. As a final thought, I am sure that a drummer like Jain will appreciate a quote from Amin Maalouf, an award-winning Lebanese writer working in France: "A person's identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound." How true this observation is, is confirmed by the very coherence of As Is.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 30 November 2002

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