Making music in quarantine, isolated from bandmates and audiences, feels like the antithesis of everything Sunny Jain has done so far. Composer and dhol player Jain is best known for his work with Brooklyn’s top bhangra party band Red Baraat, famous for exuberant live shows, and his solo debut Wild Wild East, which came out in February of 2020, was just as dynamic for its collaborative energy.
Fortunately, quarantine didn’t stop Sunny Jain from making new music. Phoenix Rise is the result of virtual collaborations with 50-odd artists, an assortment of bright, punchy tunes that makes for a vibrant example of fruitful musical connections coming to pass even in the most isolated of circumstances. It’s an eclectic mix in every way, a 72-page book of photographs (of food and instruments) and plant-based recipes accompanying ten tracks that range from country-fried rock to golden age Bollywood, to name just a few pieces of the album’s transcultural patchwork.
If the individual songs are more stripped-down than past works, they are no less impactful as examples of how successfully Jain puts the many different styles in his and his friends’ respective musical milieux in dialogue with one another. On “Heroes”, John Falsetto on mbira and voice, Endea Owens on bass, and Tawanda Mapanda on sax weave a bright musical tapestry that serves as a background for Malik Work to rap a tribute to essential workers and activists. Shilpa Ananth sings “Where Is Home” from forced isolation in Dubai, her voice bleeding poignance over dhol and mbira.
On plugged-in “Say It”, Arooj Aftab calls out “Black lives matter / Say it” in Urdu over rattling percussion and winding violin and bass with solemnity in sharp contrast to the track that comes next: twang-heavy “I’ll Make It Up to You”, featuring Adrian Quesada on howling lead guitar as Jain attacks a full drum kit and Kushal Gaya sings about gun violence and protests against police-perpetrated violence with gritty, bluesy sincerity.
“Pride in Rhythm” and “Phoenix Rise” are hearty instrumentals, the first blending silky retro synths with shimmering percussion and the second led by soaring sax into zero gravity chaos. A new version of “Wild Wild East” bursts with sax, drums, and guitar at full volume. Jain’s wife and children cover lilting Bollywood classic “Hai Apna Dil” with a buoyant sweetness. An arrangement of “Ja Ja Re Apne Mandirwa” moves quickly from serenity to ecstasy. The album ends with “In and Out”, where fiery violin and melismatic vocables overlay unstoppable drums.
When Wild Wild East came out last year, it was a colossal start to a promising solo chapter in Sunny Jain’s already storied career. Global twists may not have allowed it the spotlight it deserved, but the appropriately titled Phoenix Rise shows Jain to be both capable as a performer and as a creative thinker. Sunny Jain is an artist who finds a way to express himself and to keep a sense of musical community alive no matter what and never more clearly than in the relative intimacy of the foods, sounds, and images of Phoenix Rise.