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Composer hits the right notes

Merging western and South Asian structures and sounds with bright grace, Sundar Viswanathan’s music is not your traditional music.

“It is a reflection of all that influences my music and is perhaps best described as World Jazz,” says the Juno-nominated saxophonist and composer. “My belief is that the right music is not coming out if I am not being honest with myself.”

Viswanathan has both academic credentials and serious jazz chops. He has played with big names like Dave Holland and Wynton Marsalis and taken his music far and wide, playing in Japan and Turkey, Europe and South Africa.

He was around six or seven when his parents moved to Canada in the early 70s and music was Viswanathan’s refuge, growing up in the Northern Ontario mining town of Sudbury. He recalls a period when there were, at the most, 20 South Asian families in all of Sudbury and the small, tightly-knit community weathered racial tension. Most of his youth he was Sam, returning to the name his parents gave him only in his early twenties.

“People didn’t ‘get’ visible minorities those days,” he says. “Those experiences shape people, they either make you or break you. It made me more introverted, I turned to music to express myself.”

He was introduced to classical saxophone while at the music program at Wilfrid Laurier and knew he had found his passion. This is what he wanted to do. His parents, of course, had other plans, hoping he would pursue law. It helped, however, that Viswanathan was working on his doctorate and also received an offer from York University where he now teaches jazz. “That provided the security my parents were looking for for me!”

He tells his students to focus on finding what they love.

“If you have any doubts, it’s not for you. It’s not going to happen. You have to know how serious you are, really. It’s a life of sacrifice, but if you have the fire in your belly, work with it.”

Viswanathan himself is deeply committed to his music. “There are moments when you are on stage and you lose yourself. It’s like experiencing a little glimpse of the divine.”

Posted: May 2, 2018

June 2019

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