InSound Records IS003 (sundarmusic.com)
For years before this first CD release, the Toronto world-jazz band Avataar paid its dues in workshops and gigs across Ontario. Reflecting the interest in the album, recently Petal received the 2016 Toronto Jazz Festival’s Special Projects Initiative award. What’s the buzz about? Avataar is led by the multiple JUNO-nominated jazz saxophonist, bansurist and composer Sundar Viswanathan. He’s solidly supported by an all-star band including local jazzers and world music heroes (several of whom lean heavily on Hindustani musical accents): Michael Occhipinti (guitar), Justin Gray (bass), Felicity Williams (voice), Ravi Naimpally (tabla) and Giampaolo Scatozza (drums).
There are numerous solos by all concerned I could cite for praise, starting with wispy long lyrical melodies and searing hard bop gestures in the sax solos by Viswanathan. I also want to earmark the superb, always sensitive and sometimes exploratory guitar work throughout by Occhipinti – but each musician gets a solo to command in the album.
Outstanding performances abound in the title track Petal (the space between). In it, guest Toronto keyboardist Robi Botos begins quietly by playing the grand piano’s strings muted with one hand, thus rendering a remarkably Hungarian cimbalom-like sonority and non-metric rhythmic density. Botos masterfully builds themes and textures with two hands aboard the keyboard. He’s joined by Viswanathan’s sax and Williams’ vocals in twinned melodic lines, sometimes in unison, while other times diverging into harmony with the rest of the band in supporting roles.
Enhancing listening satisfaction is the initial sprinkling of atmospheric sounds in Agra, opening up the track’s soundscape to a glimpse of the world outside the Toronto studio. The pre-recorded spoken texts woven into the uplifting jazz hymn-like Petal (Ephemerata) are also handled skillfully. These are not just any words, but those which reflect the evanescence of human life spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, Osho, the Dalai Lama, Alan Watts, Swami Vivekananda and others, spiritual seekers all. They greatly amplify the positive emotion many listeners will experience in this music.
Concert Note: Avataar launches “Petal” on March 30 at Lula Lounge and performs at the Small World Music Centre on May 20.