Former Sudburian’s world jazz group wins Juno

Sundar Viswanathan said he was in “shock” when his group Avataar collected the Juno in May

A world jazz group called Avataar, led by former Sudburian Sundar Viswanathan, won Jazz Album of the Year in the group category for their second album, Worldview, at the Junos 2022 in May.

Viswanathan, who now lives in Toronto and has been a music professor at York University for more than two decades, said he was pleased with the nomination but thought, “There’s no way I’m going to win.”

“I didn’t expect to win here,” he said. “I have a friend who’s also nominated and I thought he’s definitely going to get it, you know? … So I had no expectations anyway. And when it happened, I was actually in shock for a while.”

You can check out the title single from the Juno Award-winning album below:

Though the band name Avataar might conjure up mental images of the blue cartoon characters in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Viswanathan, who is of Indian descent, said the name actually came from Hinduism, where it refers to an incarnation of a deity.

He formed the band about 11 years ago. The band, which Viswanathan says has some fairly eclectic influences, is inspired by the deep musical traditions of India, Africa and Brazil, which are rooted within the framework of modern jazz.

“There’s so much music that has influenced my writing and my hearing, and then the guys who play in the band bring their own influences in terms of their improvisation and their sound,” he said.

“It’s quite a versatile ensemble. And that’s why I kind of feel very comfortable, proud and grateful that we’ve received this award, because I never thought that something so versatile would be nominated or a little bit on a narrative level.

“That particular award, which is jazz album of the year, usually goes to a more mainstream jazz or modern-sounding jazz (group)… So that, to me, is a very positive way of reflecting in people’s ears.”

The band’s members are Viswanathan (saxophones, flute, vocals), Felicity Williams (vocals), Michael Occhipinti (guitar), Justin Gray (bass), Ravi Naimpally (tablas), and Max Senitt (drums and percussion).

Special guests on the band’s latest, second album, Worldview, are Aaron Lightstone (oud) and Todd Pentney (piano, Fender Rhodes, synth).

Born in India, Viswanathan’s family immigrated to Kentucky, USA before settling in Sudbury at the age of five, where his father was a professor of social work at Laurentian University.

He said he played guitar growing up and started playing the saxophone as a student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.

Viswanathan said as much as he loves Sudbury, he experienced racism and bullying here as a youngster. This prompted him to spend much of his time indoors practicing his musical instruments.

As a man of Indian origin, Viswanathan also said he felt he had experienced a “glass ceiling” in the Canadian jazz industry.

Because jazz was originally an African-American form of music that was embraced by many whites, Viswanathan said there aren’t many South Asians in the industry.

Since the band’s sound is a bit different than standard jazz, Viswanathan said he was often told by jazz festival producers that they would not be able to sell Avataar’s sound.

“I don’t know if color played a role in that, but I don’t want to speculate on that, but I definitely feel like I was pushing,” he said.

But winning the Juno changed everything. Avataar played at the Toronto Jazz Festival this summer, the band’s first festival in a major city. Viswanathan said he hopes the Juno win will open some doors for his group.

If you’re interested in seeing Avataar perform live, the band will be playing at the Sudbury Jazz Festival on September 10th.

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