In the liner notes of Cat Toren’s Human Kind, the pianist looks to the past to address the present. Even without the notes, it does not take much analysis to come to the conclusion that this record is political. The fact that it was released on the day of the presidential inauguration, the images of protestors, the Washington monument and song titles like “Regression” and “Sanctuary City”, should be enough clues for any American. The pianist points out that in the past, jazz artists such as Nina Simone held benefit concerts for civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality and by donating the proceeds of this record to the American Civil Liberties Union, she addresses the present by honoring this past tradition. With the help of Xavier Del Castillo (Saxophone), Yoshie Fruchter (Oud/Guitar), Jake Leckie (Bass) and Matt Honor (Drums), Toren’s compositions shine throughout Human Kind.
Of all the influences mentioned by Toren in the liner notes, Alice Coltrane’s is arguably the most apparent and crucial. Despite the fact that Human Kind never wades into waters as hypnotic and loose as Journey in Satchidananda or as aggressive and chaotic as Universal Consciousness, it is undeniable that the spirit of Alice Coltrane resonates in parts of Toren’s accomplished record. The beginning of “Regression”, with its spacious atmosphere ringing with bells and oud as the piano provides a melancholy and ominous opening, is the first example this influence. The tension builds as the sax enters with long notes before restraining itself to quick, understated flurries of notes. The influence of middle-eastern music, by way of the influence of Alice Coltrane, is clear when Fruchter’s oud states the motif of the piece before both the oud – which steals the show – and sax go into well played solos.
Though tracks like “Regression” show that Toren is adapt on writing pieces that grow from sparse meditations to more active passages, songs like “Sanctuary City” and album closer “The Public Good” show that she is equally comfortable starting with pace. “Sanctuary City” begins with a frantic environment created by the drums, bass and oud which provide a background to melodic lines from the sax. After the first two minutes the bass establishes a breakneck speed tempo and the rest of the band follows suit. The tempo lets up around the 5:19 mark, where Toren, who is now on Rhodes, slowly plays her way into introducing a new theme. The bandleader’s motif is mimicked by the bass and countered by the oud, with Del Castillo’s sax closing out the composition by skillfully soloing over the dueling themes.
“The Public Good”, arguably the stand-out track of the album, approaches quickness differently – opening up with much freer improvisation. The piano and guitar play sporadically as the sax provides more conventional lines before the bass establishes a medium tempo and the tune transitions to a much more straight-ahead musical approach. There is a notable blues and soul influence here, particularly in Toren’s fantastic solo. Fruchter, who has traded his oud for a guitar, again solos impressively, his tone enhanced by a slight echo effect. After a strong bass solo, the piano and guitar briefly revisit the controlled disorder of the opening minute before the band locks back into to the main melodic theme.
Her solo and accompaniment may be the highlight of “The Public Good”, but Toren, a bandleader who gives the sax or oud almost equal time in the limelight as her piano throughout Human Kind, seems uninterested in pieces that prioritize her over the rest of the band. However, there is one gorgeous exception, a tribute to Alice Coltrane that focuses on Toren’s brilliant playing – “Legacy (For A.C.).” The way her notes shimmer beautifully around the 4:01 minute mark may remind listeners of portions of Alice Coltrane’s “Turiya and Ramakrishna” (Ptah, the El Daoud). Toren’s piano is gorgeous, filled with the depth and emotion fitting for a tribute to such a visionary artist.
Although Toren does not shy away from showing her influences on Human Kind, this is not to be taken as a suggestion that the record is to be reduced to a mere retreading of her heroes’ past feats. Toren’s original compositions, which contain great transitions between ethereal and more lively sections (and vice-versa), are all captivating. With this only being the young pianist’s third release via bandcamp, it does not seem to be a risky bet that there will be more high quality music in the near future from Toren. Human Kind is a concise listen that warrants repeated visits.
Cat Toren’s Human Kind the latest album by pianist Cat Toren, is out now and can be purchased on bandcamp.
Cat Toren – Piano/Keyboard/Compositions
Xavier Del Castillo – Saxophone
Yoshie Fruchter – Oud/Guitar
Jake Leckie – Bass
Matt Honor – Drums
Brian Kiwanuka is a writer‚ attorney and music nerd but not in that order. He digs Armand Hammer‚ Alice Coltrane and Stevie Wonder and occasionally subjects his friends to detailed rants about music. You can check out more of his writing on 93 Million Miles Above.