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Former Sudburian’s world jazz group wins Juno

Sundar Viswanathan said he was in a ‘state of shock’ when his group Avataar picked up the Juno in May
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The Juno Award winning group Avataar is seen here. Sudbury native Sundar Viswanathan (third from right) is the band’s leader.

A world-jazz group called Avataar led by former Sudburian Sundar Viswanathan was awarded Jazz Album of the Year in the group category for their second album, “Worldview,” at the 2022 Junos 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 satisfied just to be nominated, but thought “there’s no way I’m going to win.”

“I had no expectation of winning this,” he said. “I have a friend who's also nominated, and I thought he's definitely going to get it, you know? … So anyways, I didn't have any expectations. And when it happened, I was actually in a state of shock for a while.”

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

Although the band name Avataar might bring up mental images of the blue cartoon characters in the 2009 James Cameron film, Viswanathan, who is of Indian heritage, said the name actually comes from Hinduism, where it refers to an incarnation of a deity.

He started the band approximately 11 years ago. The band, which Viswanathan said has some pretty eclectic influences, is inspired by the deep musical traditions of India, Africa and Brazil, rooted within the framework of modern jazz.  

“There's so much music that has been influencing my writing and my hearing, and then the guys who play in the band, they bring their own influences in terms of their improvising and their sounds,” he said.

“It's a pretty eclectic ensemble. And this is why I feel like I really kind of like, proud and grateful that we got this award, because I never thought that something as eclectic as this would be nominated or a little on a narrative level. 

“This particular award, which is the Jazz Album of the Year, Group, usually it goes to a more mainstream jazz or modern sounding jazz (group) … So this, to me, is a very positive sort of reflection in the way people's ears are going.”

The members of the band 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 most recent, sophomore album, Worldview, include Aaron Lightstone (oud) and Todd Pentney (piano, Fender Rhodes, synth).

Viswanathan was born in India, and his family migrated to Kentucky in the U.S. before settling in Sudbury when he was five, where his father was a professor of social work at Laurentian University. 

He said he enjoyed guitar in his youth, and took up the saxophone while a student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School. 

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

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

With jazz originally an African-American music form which was adopted by many white people, Viswanathan said there aren’t many South Asian people in the industry.

With the band’s sound being a bit different than standard jazz, Viswanathan said he often got told by producers of jazz festivals that they wouldn’t be able to sell Avataar’s sound.

“I don't know whether colour played a part in it, but I don't want to speculate on that, but I can definitely feel that I was pushing,” he said.

But with winning the Juno, all that has changed. Avataar played the Toronto Jazz Festival earlier this summer, the band’s first festival in a larger city. Viswanathan said he hopes the Juno win will open some doors for his group.

If you’d like to catch a live performance of Avataar, the band is set to play at the Sudbury Jazz Festival on Sept. 10.