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
With a first track as striking as “Radiance In Veils”, one immediately gets the sense that Cat Toren’s Human Kind’s Scintillating Beauty (Panoramic Records, 2020) is an album that will live up to its name. The tune is an epic Cat Toren original that moves from serenity to overwhelming force – in one instance in shockingly abrupt fashion. In its calmer moments, Toren’s piano is spellbindingly delicate, working particularly well in the company of mesmerizing chimes. Later, a fiery solo by saxophonist Xavier del Castillo is met well by energetic playing from the rest of the band. The high-quality on display will not surprise anyone who has heard Cat Toren’s Human Kind’s self-titled debut album, which featured the same band: Cat Toren (piano, compositions) Yoshie Fruchter (oud), Jake Leckie (bass), and Matt Honor (drums). Stephanie Rooker, who plays chimes, tuning forks and singing bowls on “Radiance in Veils”, is the only addition.
Toren’s band is more subtle and brooding in “Garment of Destiny”. The pianist begins the tune with a sublime solo that is particularly notable for gorgeous trills. The band creates a spacious atmosphere for beautifully reserved work from both Toren and Fruchter. It feels like an ominous calm before the storm, and after the first four minutes, Castillo is that storm. The saxophonist moves with a captivating twisted energy that leads the band into an impressive and dark conclusion.
Considering the more expansive nature of both “Radiance in Veils” and “Garment of Destiny”, “Ignus Fatuus” is not what most listeners will be expecting next. However, with a relatively traditional structure that features an instantly memorable saxophone motif, it’s an excellent surprise. The band swings very well, and Toren is outstanding regardless of whether she is the center of attention or enhancing Castillo’s fantastic soloing. The bass lines are very catchy, and the creative conversation between the piano and sax is a joy to hear.
Toren again leads her band into different stylistic territory on the final song, “Rising Phoenix”. The first half of the tune has Toren conjuring up a chaotic backdrop of sprawling descending piano behind Castillo’s powerful sax. The first half slowly builds, but the second changes things up and is much more immediate with soulful melodies. There isn’t a moment in “Rising Phoenix” – or the rest of Scintillating Beauty– where Cat Toren’s Human Kind falters. Even though it’s only 40 minutes, there’s a lot to dig into here, and all of it sounds great.
— Brian Kiwanuka, 9.30.2020
The key that unlocks the door to Cat Toren's second Human Kind release is spiritual jazz, but the fifth album from the Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based pianist is a house of many doors. Three years after the release of the quintet's self-titled debut, Human Kind—Toren plus Xavier Del Castillo (saxophone), Yoshie Fruchter (oud), Jake Leckie (bass), and Matt Honor (drums)—returns with four in-depth explorations. Her sense of timing is acute: after forming the outfit at the time of the 2016 election, Toren wrote and recorded Scintillating Beauty during one of the most turbulent periods in American history. That she continues to espouse an optimistic outlook in the face of mounting chaos testifies, however, to her spirit, said optimism attributable in part to her interest in sound healing (she acquired a Sound Healing Training Certificate from the Sage Academy in Woodstock, NY) and the recent birth of her first daughter. Consistent with that outlook, Scintillating Beauty brims with imagination and infectious energy.
Recorded at Tedesco Studios in New Jersey on January 12, 2019, the album's positive tone is reflected in the inclusion of two Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes on the inner sleeve about shared humanity and brotherhood (“Let us all hope that … in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty”) plus Toren's own text, which regards improvisation metaphorically in the way musicians support each other (“our actions affect each other, we depend on one another”). She consciously fashioned the album to reflect that view: “Through these forty minutes of music, we move through light and dark aspects of being human, finishing on a hopeful groove. Hope is our champion. It is our reason for action.”
Augmenting the quintet on the adventurous opener, “Radiance in Veils,” is Stephanie Rooker, a professional sound healing facilitator who's credited with chimes, tuning forks, and singing bowls (aside from piano, Toren is credited on the album with the same instruments plus rattles and bells). The music awakens gently with tinkling chimes and bells joined by piano sprinkles and hushed gestures from sax and oud. The incantatory, chant-like feel of the introduction invokes spiritual jazz in its classic form; the music then blossoms with full-throated saxophone expressions and drama seeping into the group interplay. Five minutes in, Leckie's pulse marks the music's transition from rubato to vamp, after which a free-wheeling Del Castillo engenders similarly open-form playing from the others. The piece progresses through rhapsodic and aggressive sections, the music's unfolding suggesting life's stages, with everything from innocence and struggle integral to the experience. The quintet's fluid advance through this multi-scenic journey, some of its episodes highly structured and others freer, speaks to the Its title derived from one of the MLK Jr. quotes (“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality”), “Garment of Destiny” opens with explorative solos by Toren and Fruchter, with Leckie and a brushes-wielding Honor supporting them responsively. With sax added as the puzzle's final piece, the group digs into the seven-minute improv in a manner consistent with Toren's metaphorical understanding of the form.
“Ignus Fatuus” exchanges the general spiritual jazz dimension of the album for a refreshing exercise in classic swing, Toren showing she can solo in a rollicking style as easily as play freely. An element of dark humour informs the romp, and echoes of Monk and Mingus are audible in the unusual melodic character of the material and the muscularity of the playing.
Opening with organ, “Rising Phoenix” pulls us back into the spiritual jazz realm, this time with a hint of gospel. Similar to the first piece, the closer gradually assumes shape, Del Castillo the energized centre around which the sprawl of the others gathers itself (at such moments, one's reminded of the way Coltrane's quartet members collected around him). Halfway through, stability arrives in the form of a slow, blues-tinged groove that feels comfortably calm after the tumult of the opening half. In keeping with the track title, one might hear the gesture of renewal as humanity rising from the ashes to be reborn as a better version of itself. To Toren's credit (Human Kind's too), never does the combination of oud and saxophone as front-line voices sound anything but natural. That the elements blend so deftly is of course consistent with the leader's belief that disparate sounds can coexist to their mutual benefit and inhabit common spaces peacefully. A powerful sense of community thus emerges from these performances when the group's interactions embody hope and harmony so vividly.
— Ron Schepper, 10.07.2020
While the music on any one of Cat Toren’s releases is plenty enjoyable in isolation, there’s an added boost of pleasure gained by listening to a few of them in succession. The pianist’s 2015 sophomore release Inside the Sun was a captivating modern piano session, not unlike her debut, where melodies were as calm as still pools of water. The volatility of 2017’s HUMAN KIND was a turn toward spiritual jazz, reflecting both internal and external forces. Toren’s latest, Scintillating Beauty, marks a pure connection with societal turmoil, here and now. The untamed chaos that marks this music is unlike anything previously experienced on a Toren recording, which is why those familiar passages of hope and beauty are that much sweeter when they arrive.
— Dave Sumner, 10.15.2020
If it hadn’t already been claimed by Albert Ayler, “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe” might have been an ideal title for the second release from Cat Toren’s Human Kind. Over the course of the album’s four exploratory pieces, the Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based pianist and her adventurous, deeply attuned quintet tap into the profound tradition of spiritual jazz exemplified by pioneers like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, while offering a visceral balm for today’s turbulent reality. Toren’s Human Kind offered more than an excellent taster on their self-titled debut release, a superb album in itself, laying the foundation for Scintillating Beauty. The ultimate effect is vividly captured by the album’s actual title, in exhilarating style.
Available on CD, with a vinyl pressing due later in the year, this recording possesses a uniquely enthralling and invigorating kind of beauty. Music can be deeply affecting, on many different levels, and when mind, heart and soul come together in the way it does here, there can be no better listening experience. A practitioner of sound healing, Toren creates music that soothes the soul while quickening the pulse. “Scintillating Beauty illustrates how musical improvisation is a form of conscious communication,” Toren writes in her liner notes. “This album is being released during a time where voices who have been in the foreground instead amplify voices that have been kept in the background, so we may achieve a more perfect harmony going forward.”
Three years after its self-titled debut, Human Kind reconvenes with the same stellar line-up: Toren, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. The group initially formed during the 2016 election season, as the mood of the country was turning decidedly bleaker. This album was composed and recorded as Toren was feeling a glimmer of hope arising from that contentious period. Though its release coincides with an uncertain future marked by quarantine and mass protests, the pianist continues to feel a cautious optimism as another election cycle nears. “I was feeling a surge of hope until very recently,” Toren says. “With everything we’re going through now, I honestly feel a little conflicted, but I don’t want to diminish the fact that hope is something that we need and that was what was in my mind writing the music. The music is definitely tinged with some darker tones, but I meant for it to ultimately be uplifting and cathartic.”
Inspiration for the music also 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.” An incredibly poignant quote still very relevant for our times. With everything going on in the world at the moment, it is understandably sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But we have to. It is as important now as it ever was for us to take inspiration from great human beings such as Dr King, remaining true to our beliefs that with the simple yet often elusive ethos of loving-kindness to all, we can make a better world. We have to try.
Even if we were to disregard the powerful meanings that inspire Toren’s music, this album would still sound magnificent. Understanding where and why the composer is coming from just adds gravitas. I feel involved in her music. I feel drawn to it. If I allow myself to enter completely in to it, its expressive, emotive nature becomes a part of me. I can relate to the highs and lows, to the many shades of light and dark, and to the life-affirming power that the music undoubtedly has to offer. For me personally, the four tracks take me on a journey filled with wonderment. I can hear the inspiration of Alice and John Coltrane, yet I am also reminded of Keith Jarrett’s work in the 70s with his two brilliant quartets. Sometimes I can almost touch the beauty of Jarrett’s European Quartet with Jan Garbarek, as they move from melodious lyricism to experimental flare. And at other times it’s as if I’m on the front row of one of Jarrett’s American Quartet gigs, listening to Dewey Redman explore the outer regions of free improvisation.
Toren hopes that the music of Human Kind acts not only as a response to the world around it, but helps to exert that healing force that music can provide. For me, she achieves this, and more besides. Her music is empowering. Enter into the spirit of her music and like me, you too may well feel spiritually energised and mindfully uplifted.
— Mike Gates, 9.26.2020