Pianist/composer Cat Toren conjures music as healing force and hope for the future on the second album by her exploratory quintet HUMAN KIND. "Scintillating Beauty" evokes 60s spiritual jazz, sound healing techniques and positive activism.
At its core, the creative act of making art is grounded in generosity and hope; the gift of sharing one’s inspiration with others and the hope that in doing so, it will be transformative in some form for those who experience it. Inspired by two iconic quotes from the Reverend Martin Luther King, pianist/composer Cat Toren confronts the fraught contemporary moment in our collective history by searching for music that resonates with the ideals of redemption, metamorphosis, and spiritual evolution that are at the core of the civil rights movement. Enlisting the talents of her quintet HUMAN KIND on their sophomore release, Toren draws on her work as a sound healer and the influences of spiritual jazz practitioners such as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders to produce an album whose message is powerfully communicative.
“Radiance in Veils,” the album’s opening track, begins with delicate chimes drawn directly from Toren’s sound healing practice. The quartet gradually explores a rhythmically free space over harmonic drones, quietly at first before gaining in intensity as the pedal point swings back and forth between the initial pitch and surrounding notes. Despite the diverse music cultures suggested by the instrument of oud, saxophone, mixed percussion, and piano, this opening is grounded in an immediately recognizable expressive template, an introductory call to prayer of sorts that one can identify in musics from around the world. A rhapsodic piano solo follows as Toren meditates on mournful Phrygian harmonies, leading into a vamp over which saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo and oudist Yoshie Fruchter play a haunting melody in unison. Del Castillo leads the way with a blistering solo as the group gradually joins him and the rhythm becomes free once again. Another contemplative piano solo acts as a harmonic bridge to a frenetic transitional passage, before the piece’s mysterious main second theme arrives, a disjunct, obstinate figure played in rhythmic unison that ushers in oud and piano solos. An ensemble melody follows, an intensified quasi-hybrid of the previous two themes, before the track ends with the oud embellishing a smooth vamp.
“Garment of Destiny” is inspired by a King quote that speaks of an “inescapable network of mutuality,” a network that Toren sees in the dynamics of improvising as much as social communication. Beginning with a searching Toren solo, Fruchter and bassist Jake Leckie join for an improvised dialogue that is notable for the restraint and space each musician creates. The entire quintet comes together for an unfolding improvisation that is led by Del Castillo’s plaintive sax, evolving as one long gesture opens into a broad climax.
“Ignis Fatuus” is the most overtly swung music on the album, presented with a touch of irony, a response to the ministrations of politicians, spin doctors, and those who pollute the social discourse with misinformation. The sax melody has hints of the dry humor of Monk and Mingus. Toren’s solo toys around with melodic fragments from various angles, twisting and turning them to see how they can be heard from multiple angles. Del Castillo's entrance is brash and sardonic and as his solo intensifies, his lines become more angular and disjointed.
The final work on the album, “Rising Phoenix,” opens with an organ, a new texture that briefly references the gospel tradition and brings us back to the reverent space of the opening track. Energy accumulates through the improvisation on this track, as if to capture a reawakening and energetic renewal. Midway through the piece, Toren begins to play towering, polytonal triads over a pedal before Del Castillo intones three note clarion calls. This leads into a slow, gospel blues groove organized into seven bar phrases that roll over themselves like crests of a heavy wave, a message of renewal to close the recording.
On top of crafting an expressive and energetic arc over the course of the album, Toren deftly blends the stylistic references inherent in the HUMAN KIND instrumentation. The shared musical environment she facilitates is one in which the various voices present, whether it be the Arabic oud, jazz saxophone, or percussion grounded in the healing tradition, are meeting in a space that has a quality of universality; she skillfully avoids the trap of featuring any instrument for the exoticism of its association. Perhaps this is yet one more way that Toren’s practice strives to send a message about community and harmony, that we can find a mutual forum for discourse. Or as King put it as no one else could, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
Cat Toren is an award winning pianist, improviser and composer residing in Brooklyn, New York. Described as “vibrant, earthy and spiritual” (UK Vibe), Cat “uses bold atmospheric abstraction and fluid melodies to mix deep human warmth with creative fire” (Coastal Jazz and Blues Society).
Cat Toren holds a Masters in Music Composition from the New York State University at Purchase College and an undergraduate degree in Jazz Studies from Capilano College in North Vancouver, BC, her hometown. She holds a Sound Healing Training Certificate from the Sage Academy in Woodstock, New York. She has studied jazz and classical piano with highly respected pianists such as Andy LaVerne and Sophia Rosoff and composition with Dr. Lisa Miller, Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun and Pulitzer Prize Nominee Laura Kaminsky.
On January 21, 2017 Cat released her fourth album entitled Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND. It sold copies in over seven countries, receiving critically acclaimed reviews such as “A powerful recording” – Bandcamp Daily (The Best New Jazz on Bandcamp) and “Cat Toren should be a household name. Incredible music for 2017” – UK Vibe. The music is influenced by the free-form, socially conscious jazz of the late ’60s as well as today’s civil rights movement. The Vancouver International Jazz Festival in conjunction with the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation asked Cat to be an artist speaker at the University of British Columbia Colloquium 2017 where the annual topic was Lines of Flight: Improvisation, Hope and Refuge. Cat presented a lecture entitled Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND: Music for Empathic Activism. This lecture was published in the online arts journal Nothing To Say. Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND will release their follow up album “Scintillating Beauty” on Panoramic Recordings (New Focus Recordings) on September 11, 2020.
Career accolades include a JUNO Award for Best Instrumental Album of the Year in 2013 and Western Canadian Music Award in 2016 with the co-led ensemble Pugs & Crows. Additionally, Cat Toren is a respected composer. Premiers include “Sleep” for the Cassatt String Quartet, performed in Vinalhaven, Maine in 2017 and “Gaea” for Orkestra Futura, premiered in Vancouver, BC in 2014. She is an Associate Composer at the Canadian Music Centre.https://www.cattoren.com/
Up next is Vancouver-born pianist Cat Toren, now resident in New York (rather than the UK’s northwest) and soon to release her new album Scintillating Beauty. We’ve championed Toren’s music here before on Cosmic Jazz and with advance notice of the new release here on Bandcamp it’s time to check out her take on the spiritual jazz tradition. Toren’s music is influenced by the free-form, socially conscious jazz of the late 60s but she’s also a passionate advocate of the current (and much needed) civil rights agenda. Indeed, inspiration for the music came from two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. that Toren includes in the liner notes. The first, from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, gave the album its title as well as a pointed social imperative: Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. The second quote, from the sermon Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, begins We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and that thought provided the title for the second track on the new album, Garment of Destiny.
Toren’s previous album, released in 2017, was an inspirational one for us here at CJ and cuts featured on several shows. Human Kind was the debut of Toren’s band of that name, and the same lineup has recovened for the new album. Toren on keys, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. Buy here from Toren’s site and the proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). You can check out all tracks before you buy, including the superb Legacy (for A.C.) and right here listen to an excellent live version from the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cat Toren’s music is highly recommended and the new album is highly recommended. Cat assures me that there will be a CD version as well as the download – both available in September from her own site or the ever-reliable Bandcamp.
— Derek, 8.15.2020
Since heading to New York, Juno-winning pianist Cat Toren (Pugs & Crows) has been building a name for her playing in the Big Apple. Among the projects she has going is the band Human Kind, the 2016 crew which features saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor.
Formed out of the feeling of panic and loss that accompanied the results of the last US election, the material on the four track recording was inspired by two quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.
Both included in the liner notes, one is from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail and captures the album title — “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” — while the other inspired a sense of hope amid all the negative news.
With inspirations ranging from Alice Coltrane’s classics such as Ptah, El Daoud and other meditative/transcendental jazz works of the late sixties. Aside from her Masters in Music Composition from New York State University at Purchase College, Toren also holds a certificate in Sound Healing Training from Sage Academy in Woodstock, N.Y.
Here are five things to know about Scintillating Beauty.
1: HUMAN KIND: Music for Empathic Activism. This was the title of the lecture that Toren delivered at the UBC Colloquium on Studies in Improvisation. There is no question that a piece such as the opener Radiance in Veils inspires a kind of urgency to blend cultures and needs with the joy of moving in sound. The closing few minutes give Toren time to drop in some lovely pensive piano before the whole band kicks back in to ride the song out.
2: Garment of Destiny. A pretty great title, the tune is a slow burner that begins quietly before the bass and oud take over for some Middle Eastern moods about 90 seconds in that then moves into a skittering improv workout that must be a monster live. This is really reminiscent of a lot of ECM label jazz, kind of bridging classical and chamber jazz.
3: Ignis Fatuus. The most straight-ahead song on the entire album swings on Leckie’s walking bass line and Toren makes clear that she could hold her own in any mainstream jazz environment if she chose to. This is the kind of toe-tapping track that radio programmers will jump on to use as an introduction to her work and with good reason. Great sax solo at the three minute mark that just burns up the rest of the tune. Some pretty heavy blowing going on here.
4: Rising Phoenix. The closer is all about conjuring images and it’s possible to see the mythic bird being conjured out of the somewhat random sounds the band lays down at the opening of this 10 minute-plus piece. It sort of gets stuck on that note for half of the time, before the song slides into an almost bluesy feel which Del Castillo drapes in some sweet big blasts of sax.
5: Canadian Music Centre. An associate composer at the Canadian Music Centre, Toren has had a few commissions for other groups ranging from string quartets to Vancouver’s Orkestra Futura. Given how satisfying the longer pieces on the new album are, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to look forward to her producing a long work that really gives itself over to moods and movements for a larger ensemble. The idea of a track such as Rising Phoenix extended to include more percussionists and some strings is pretty enticing.
— Stuart Derdeyn, 9.08.2020
You don't have to be high to appreciate this Brooklyn-based keyboardist-composer's band's salute to the socially conscious east-meets-west jazz of the late 1960's, but it probably helps -- it's a concept of freedom that tends ironically towards well-worn platitudes and an over-reliance on "vibe."
— Selwyn Harris, 9.01.2020