For Avataar, uniqueness can be a blessing and a curse

Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and that adds a uniqueness that’s reflected in our neighbourhoods, our restaurants, our festivals and, of course, our music.

There’s perhaps no greater evidence of that musical diversity than in Avataar. The Juno-winning ensemble is a world-class jazz fusion group with a sound that’s informed by Keith Jarrett, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Robert Glasper, Shakti and a whole lot of other influences in between.

Bandleader Sundar Viswanathan joined us to talk more about what makes this unique group what it is.

The group has an incredible sound, and you’re getting the recognition that you so rightly deserve. How did Avataar come together?

After I moved back to Toronto, I was thinking about all of the different things I had been looking at. I was in the U.S. for a long time, and I’d been checking out jazz but I also studied world music. All this stuff started coming together when I came back. It was a natural evolution of what I was doing before, having lived in New York where I was playing with world-jazz stuff there. My history started coming together and I started really exploring what I was interested in and had studied. It started becoming who I was. It was less fabricated, and more of an evolution.

Congratulations on the Juno Award. For a relatively new project, what has that recognition meant to you?

I think I’m still in shock, actually. It was on my bucket list. It means a lot to me mostly just to be seen and recognized. I feel like over the past while since I’ve been making music, especially music that’s on in the mainstream, I felt I needed to make it because it was coming from a genuine space within me. It felt like this was more authentic to me than anything else I could write. So, to have it realized and to be seen on a larger scale is so important. It recognizes the diversity and [raises] awareness of what’s out there [that’s] not necessarily conventional or mainstream, that’s more eclectic.

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We’re seeing jazz go through various metamorphoses. It’s changing all the time. There are influences coming from all over the place. Would you say that, in a sense, having something that isn’t mainstream could actually help a career?

It depends. I think there are different situations. It’s sort of a function of what the context is. It can help a career in having a little bit of cache, in terms of being different. But on the other hand, you’re going to necessarily play a wedding gig. Not that that’s necessarily the trajectory you always want, but that’s part of being a working musician these days. Not everybody can just play the big stages, festivals and clubs all the time and make their living. It’s challenging. Coming back to your Juno question, I think getting this Juno was helpful in terms of… For instance, I’ve got a bunch of jazz festival dates coming up in the summer, and this is the first time my band has played a jazz festival. I think the Juno was the thing that put us over the top. I think part of the issue has always been the categorizability of the music. When someone asks, “What kind of music do you play?” there are so many different things that I can talk about. I would say it’s still jazz, but it’s also not jazz. That makes it problematic sometimes.

If people want to find out more about the group, how can they do that?

You can go to my website, and I should also say that when you’re searching for Avataar online, it’s problematic. There is a Swedish death metal band called Avatar, and we often get confused — not musically, but online. You have to look for Avataar, and you should put the word “band,” and if you really want to find us, add “WORLDVIEW,” and you should get it. It’s always been a problem. I should have thought about this when I was branding.

This interview has been edited and condensed.