Sunny Jain’s “Taboo” and Asphalt Orchestra

This double album review will appear in the November issue of All About Jazz-NY. Both feature young ensembles of first-rate improvisors.

Percussionist, composer Sunny Jain has always had a knack for incorporating elements of his Punjabi heritage into the framework of his modern, melodically driven compositions. Jain, along with musicians like saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and pianist Vijay Iyer, has helped to codify Indo Jazz into a recognized – and rigorously compelling – jazz genre through his work as a musician, and as a musical ambassador around the world.

On “Taboo,” his latest release on BJU Records, Jain embraces both roles, shedding light on issues of religion, violence, and gender through the ancient prism of Indian classical music, and centuries old poetic forms, and challenging musical taboos by blending ancient forms together with jazz, Bollywood sounds and rock with postmodern abandon.

The fact that he pulls off such an ambitious concept is a testament to Jain’s musicianship, his skills as a bandleader, and his equally talented band mates. Pianist Marc Carey, guitarist Nir Felder, and bassist Gary Wang round out the quartet that effortlessly performs Jain’s propulsive, polyrhythmic compositions. Joining them are six vocalists of South Asian decent whose contributions figure prominently in the Indian raga-based compositions.

“Jack And Jill” opens the album with a syncopated melodic fragment that bounces between instruments, delineating the meter, and acting as a foil to the lilting spoken-word part performed by the Sri Lankan interdisciplinary artist Yalindream. The lyric is a tongue-in-cheek meditation on sexual identity, an issue that Jain highlights in the liner notes as particularly pressing in the South Asian community. “In the strict ranks of gay and straight,” Yalindream opens, before a weighty pause, “what is my status?” The delivery borders on silly, but makes clear the leader’s M.O. Throughout “Taboo,” Jain confronts politically fraught issues through the lens of his globally-informed, yet joyous music. From the shuffling, odd meter blues of “Two Ladies,” to the emotionally complex, and episodic “We Sinful Women,” the leader and his band seem pretty confidant that music can transcend the taboos that hold us back.

Similarly ebullient is “Asphalt Orchestra,” the twelve-piece, NYC-based marching band that bears little resemblance to the halftime entertainment from high school. On their eponymous release on Cantaloupe Music, the ensemble tackles a repertoire of skillfully arranged covers ranging from Bjork to Zappa to Mingus, as well as a pair of commissioned originals that cover vast stylistic ground, from the Balkan wedding music, to Sousa, and the newest sounds of contemporary classical music.

The Orchestra caused more than a few stirs this summer, performing at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and were able to bring the same energy and immediacy to the studio recording, where the band performed live. Tenor saxophonist Peter Hess arrangement of Frank Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” is a fitting opener, and polyrhythmic tour de force for the entire group. Equally arresting is the arrangement of Charles Mingus’ “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slipper,” which hews closely to the lushly impressionistic arrangement on Mingus’ “Let My Children Hear Music,” but adds extra elements of rhythmic and harmonic intrigue that make it worth revisiting.

The commissioned piece “Pulse March,” ends the album with a perfect blend of marching band bravado, precise classical technique, and an open invitation to genre obliteration.

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