While growing up in the Northern Ontario mining town of Sunbury, he was known as "Sam." But in his early twenties, Sundar Viswanathan reconnected with his Indian name and heritage, and, through several conservatory courses spanning North Indian classical to Turkish maquam music, dove deeply into his Indian musical roots as a saxophonist and composer.
"I had to transcribe flute and sitar improvisations as part of class assignments. The vocabulary got into the language of my own writing," Viswanathan explains. His subsequent compositions have explored various intersections between Indian contemporary and classical, Western contemporary and classical, jazz, and electronic music; these explorations have led him to play alongside Wynton Marsalis
, Joe Lovano
, and Dave Holland
, plus more cutting-edge instrumentalists such as Sun Ra
, Vijay Iyer
and Rez Abassi. Viswanathan was nominated for a 2010 Juno Award with the world music band Jaffa Road, and has since put together and led the ensemble Avataar
featuring vocalist Felicity WIlliams
, tabla player Ravi Naimpally
, guitarist Michael Occhipinti
, bassist Justin Gray
and drummer Giampaolo Scatozza
to flesh out the voice of his unique and global musical vision.
Its synthesis of Indian and jazz music makes Petal
beat with a two-chambered heart. In "Agra," inspired by the construction of the Taj Mahal, Williams' voice doubles and harmonizes with Viswanathan's saxophone so their combined sound rises and glows like a musical sun. "Monsoon" begins as a drone, like storm clouds in the distance growing closer, until Viswanathan's saxophone splashes in like plump raindrops upon Naimpally's tabla. Contemplative yet restless, "The Long Dream" is based on a specific raga. "The ras
, the flavor of the raga, is tranquility," Viswanathan explains. "It was written in some long meters, in ten. The whole piece is really a big drone. One open sound. It was about the tranquil quality, that emotional connection to peace."
At the same time, Petal
illustrates Viswanathan's prowess as an incisive, inquisitive jazz saxophonist. His melodic approach to "Banda Aceh," which blossoms and grows like a small flower, sings with the sweet, smooth and soulful sound of Grover Washington Jr.
"Infinite Open" drives harder, an angry electronic buzz on the edge of its tabla and electric guitar; the free dialogue between Viswanathan's saxophone and Williams' voice echoes earlier duets between percussionist Airto Moreira
with vocalist Flora Purim
, despite their different instruments, material, and contexts.
Closing with Petal (Ephemerata)
, a hymn to "a peace that passeth all understanding," Petal
proves to be a spiritual as well as musical experience, where Indian and Western, traditional and jazz, electronic and acoustic music, and form and content, all submerge and then emerge as one. "I want my music to be otherworldly. My belief is that, if the music transcends, more people get it, even if they don't get it right away," Viswanathan suggests. "I hope that I can touch something as an artist that people who are not artists might not be able to touch easily."
Agra; Banda Aceh; Monsoon; The Long Dream; Infinite open; raudra;
Petal (the Space Between) Ishwar; Annapoorna; Petal (ephemerata).
Sundar Viswanathan: alto sax, soprano sax, bansuri, flute; Fleicity
Williams: vocals; Michael Occhipinti: electric and acoustic guitar; Justin
Gray: electric bass, mandolin, taus; Ravi Naimpally: table, percussion;
Giampaolo Scatozza: drums; Robi Botos: piano (7, 9) Fender Rhodes (8);
Samidha Joglekar: hindustani vocals (6).