Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Cat Toren: Out of the Fog

The pianist and composer is making music for empathic action with her group Human KInd

Cat Toren
Cat Toren (photo: Jared Lucow)

Many musicians have been influenced by the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, but pianist and composer Cat Toren takes the sway of the great leader to new levels on Scintillating Beauty (Panoramic), the debut album by her band Human Kind. The title is taken from Dr. King’s classic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he writes, “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.”

Toren includes the quote in the liner notes to the album, and she also features an excerpt from King’s sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Of the inspiration, she said, “Just reading those quotes are super-inspiring. Here’s a guy that went through a lot of shit, right? He was like, there’s a goodness in everybody, and the quote I got was ‘a deep fog of misunderstanding.’”  

Her major takeaway: “It’s a misunderstanding, y’all, we can get through this.” That thought was necessary for Toren, as much of the music on Scintillating Beauty was written shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Like many artists, she was shocked by the results, which catapulted Donald Trump into the Oval Office, and she thought about how she could affect things. “I’m writing music from the place where I’m at about how I fit in.”

From the immediate response to the election, especially the Women’s March and the growing series of public actions, Toren saw that she wasn’t alone in her sentiments. She delivered a paper for the University of British Columbia Colloquium on Improvisation that became an article in late 2017 called “Human Kind: Music for Empathic Action.” In it she detailed the growth of her political consciousness and the urgency to present music that reflects this unique moment.  

That said, Scintillating Beauty is a far cry from the fire-and-brimstone jazz of Max Roach’s We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite. Listeners seeking antecedents from the civil-rights era may find more in common with the lyrical, meditative aspects of Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite. However, in its transcendent, spiritual qualities, Toren’s music owes more to the work of Alice Coltrane, especially Ptah and El Daoud.  

Human Kind’s sound has a distinctively Middle Eastern feel. The band is a quintet featuring saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie, drummer Matt Honor, and the leader, who also plays chimes, tuning forks, bells, rattles, and singing bowls. On tracks like “Radiance in Veils” and “Garment of Destiny,” Toren’s themes are contemplative and prayerful, but the solos go in varied directions, giving the music a spontaneous quality. By contrast, on “Ignis Fatuus” there’s a walking bassline, and sly references to numerous Blue Note piano players from the ’60s. It’s as if after a long walk in the woods, the listener is suddenly back in the big city, sidewalks teeming with people and streets congested with automobile traffic. The pensive mode returns for the introduction to the album’s final track, “Rising Phoenix,” but as the piece progresses, especially via the insistent playing of Honor and Toren, the two moods are reconciled.

Toren lives in Brooklyn, but she’s from Vancouver and her interest in becoming a musician was nurtured there. Her father played trombone, and she began piano lessons when she was four years old. She also played French horn and dabbled on trumpet and guitar. Although she listened to all kinds of music, her studies focused on classical music, especially Chopin until high school. “It was just the way that I learned how to express my view,” she said. Ultimately, she developed and followed an interest in jazz. She earned an undergraduate degree in jazz studies at Capilano College in North Vancouver, then a master’s degree in music composition at SUNY Purchase.  

She played extensively in Vancouver, both as a member of the group Pugs and Crows and on the thriving improvised-music scene there. In the New York area, she took an interest in music as a healing force, and she has studied the growing field of music therapy. “It’s still a very mysterious form of healing. It’s an ancient form of healing, but we haven’t fully learned the science to it,” she said.

“I know that it works on a pretty deep level, so I’m continuing to study it,” she added. “It’s probably like a lifelong thing.”