DEEP FOG OF MISUNDERSTANDING
cleared by Cat Toren to reveal Scintillating Beauty
says Norman Warwick
She isn´t the first, and probably won´t be the last jazz artist to have been inspired by the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King (left), but pianist and composer Cat Toren borrows the power of the great leader and takes them to new musical levels on Scintillating Beauty, the debut album released on Panoramic, by her band Human Kind. The title itself is extrapolated 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.´
Having borrowed the album title from the good doctor, Cat Toren (right) also includes that quote in the liner notes to the album. Furthermore, she also features an excerpt from King’s sermon, Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution. She explains the inspiration by saying,
´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.’”
The overarching thought she was left with after re-reading these works was ´it’s a misunderstanding, y’all, we can get through this.´ Maybe it is just that simple. It´s certainly a positive view.
That thought, and perhaps that positivity, 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.”
Because of the Women’s March and the growing series of public actions that were the immediate response to the election, especially 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 kind of fire-and-brimstone jazz of others who more alarmingly share her views . rather, her protestations and concerns are more aligned to 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, Martin Johnson has observed in Jazz Times.
Human Kind’s sound has, he says, ´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.´
There is such scintillating beauty in tracks like Radiance In Veils and Garment Of Destiny, listeners might feel they are hearing her at prayer but instrumental solos go fly in all directions, adding an air of spontaneity to the music. Johnson contrasts this, though, with Ignis Fatuus and its walking bassline, and barely-concealed allusions to numerous Blue Note piano players from the sixties. This pensive mood feels like a hands-in-pockets, deep-in-thought, long walk to get out of the woods and perhaps it is because the listener, says one reviewer, is suddenly back in the big city, sidewalks teeming with people and streets congested with automobile traffic.´
Ultimately, though, the pensive mood 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.
Originally from Vancouver, Cat Toren now lives in Brooklyn, 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 remembers she also ´played French horn and dabbled on trumpet and guitar.´ Although she listened to all kinds of music, her studies focused on classical works, especially by 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. 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.´
The album´s liner notes explain, in her own words, how deeply Cat feels about all this.
These compositions are inspired by both the free form jazz of the 1960’s and a personal expression of the resurgent civil rights movement that is upon us. Jazz has always been music of expression and of the people. In the late sixties, as John and Alice Coltrane and their contemporaries were bringing jazz to new levels of experimentation and cross-culturalism, the socio-political climate was fraught with tension. There were benefits held for the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) at the infamous Five Spot Cafe, Nina Simone was singing Mississippi Goddam at Carnegie Hall and producer/concert promoter Norman Granz was demanding that venues adhere to mixed seating for his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours which featured artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. America has come a long way, but this recent regression is a wake up call that the work is far from over. Some feel uncomfortable as liberal values creep into their communities (when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression – anon.) while others don’t see civil liberties as a primary issue. In keeping with tradition, this album will benefit organizations that fight for civil liberties and human rights.
“Well, I think music, being an expression of the human heart, of the human being, itself, does express just what is happening.”
—John Coltrane Interview with Frank Kofsky 1966
The HUMAN KIND project believes in an understanding that what happens to your neighbour is held in humanity’s shared unconscious mind and is passed down generationally until our efforts transcend this unconsciousness. Americans recently decided how they would cast their vote based on their personal priority issues. If our collective priorities do not include making a considerable effort toward the public good – gender equality, racial equality, equal rights for the LGBTQ2 community, freedom of religion, the right to clean air and water, basic healthcare and quality education for all – as a minimum requirement, then we suffer as a global community. When the perceived health of one’s tax bracket is of greater concern than the health and happiness of others, we enable this suffering. This music is meant to nourish the initiative to crack the door open to see outside one’s sphere. It is meant to abate ignorance and stoke the fire of compassion. It is meant to energize the soul so that we the people can mobilize, organize and get out there! It is meant to touch the spirit and keep the faith. It is meant to inspire so that we might begin to take steps to transcend unconsciousness.
I was reminded by Mr. Johnson´s article and by the final comments there from Cat, of a line from a ´country´ song (its Americana really) in which the late John Stewart (right) said that
´when I´ve been and gone, maybe some lonesome picker will find some healing in my songs.
And this jazz stuff that Messrs Bewick and Heywood-Everett are trying to teach me is becoming more interesting, inspiring and more joined up.
sources. feedpost, Cat Toren web site and the brilliant Martin Johnson in Jazz Times
This article was compiled by Norman Warwick, owner and editor of Sidetracks & Detours daily blog. Norman is also a weekly contributor of the all art pages on Lanzarote Information and founder member of the four self-named Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) with writer and radio presenter Steve Bewick, jazz writer and local historian Gary Heywood-Everett and contributor and interviewer for Lanzarote information, Susana Fondon. The purpose of JUJJ is to share our love of the music and to grow our knowledge.
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