NEW YORK — These days, it seems if you’re Indian, you’re in. Bollywood’s recent inroads into mainstream America have helped nudge other South Asians into the foreground, as well. Sunny Jain, a good-looking, 27-year-old drummer, hopes to make his mark in the music world with his Asian-influenced jazz compositions.
He plays New York venues at least once a week, including a regular Thursday night gig at Smoke and a show scheduled for Aug. 30 at S.O.B.’s. His band, the Sunny Jain Collective, recently released its debut album “As Is” on the indie label NCM East. Jain, with the help of sax-player Steve Welsh, bassist Gary Wang and sitarist/guitarist Rez Abbasi, loaded the album with laid-back jazz numbers, sprinkling in subtle hints of a traditional Indian rhythm here or sitar picking there. On the last track, they reworked the classic “Aap Jaisa Koi,” a dancey number from “Qurbani,” a celebrated 1981 Hindi action flick, and in his hands it sounds more like a sweet jazz tune.
“I’m not trying to come out with this contrived fusion-type of thing because it’s hip,” Jain says, though he does respect such established East-meets-West artists as Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh, who mix traditional tabla and sitar sounds with heavy drum and bass. “It’s not like I’m trying to refuse those elements in me,” he adds. “But I don’t want to come out like, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m all Indian now.’ I’m paying respects to both sides.”
Since picking up his first drumsticks at the age of 10, Jain has studied and performed jazz, a fan of masters Max Roache and Miles Davis. “I was really narrow-minded, though,” he admits, and is now trying to get back to the music that influenced him in the first place — traditional Hindi music as well as rock bands such as the Cure and New Order that were around when he was a kid. He’s also learning the dohl, another traditional Indian drum, and hopes to incorporate it into his music soon. But for now, he’s only a closet tabla player. “I’m gonna say ‘no’ to the tabla,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve studied it, but I don’t consider myself a player, and I refuse to record on it because I want to know the tradition first.”
He keeps a busy schedule outside the collective, as well, playing solo gigs or with other musicians. He’s currently in the studio with Dave Cook, ’NSync’s keyboardist, for a separate recording, and he will be traveling to South Africa in October as jazz ambassador for a joint music program through the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the U.S. Department of State.
Jain’s parents are from New Delhi, but they moved to the U.S. to raise their three children in Rochester, N.Y. American-born Sunny is the youngest. He says they weren’t averse to him making noise while practicing every day and were more interested in their children being involved in different activities. “If anything, they were atypical Indian parents living in a Western culture,” he says. “They were so hip to me going into music.” He then adds, though, that his brother and sister are both doctors.