Pianist and composer Cat Toren combines classical training with a commitment to the questing, open-ended nature of free jazz. Her playing is lyrical and spare, with a deep affinity for the qualities of space and silence. Likewise, her composing is attuned to the importance of simplicity.
“I studied with this woman named Sophia Rosoff, who was a sort of piano guru,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “She had a technique she called outlining, which is essentially simplifying, like playing the first beat of every bar, and then the first and third beat of every bar. She used that and these other ideas of simplifying so you could get to the heart of the music, and what she called the emotional rhythm of a piece. That really influenced my writing and my playing, I’m just trying to find that emotional rhythm.”
In September of last year, she self-released a fantastic recording with her band HUMAN KIND called Scintillating Beauty. The title comes from a phrase used in a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.; “I just thought, I want my music to sound like that.” The cover art shows her in outline with friends in Western Canada, where she’s from, set against a blazing sun, a sudden reminder of the possibility and presence of beauty in everyday life. “I wanted to show that there’s this innocence inside all of us, and we just have to find out how to tap into it.”
King’s words were even more directly inspiring for the track “Garment of Destiny,” which “came from this Unitarian congregation that I was playing piano for. They would read it out loud every week. It was really meaningful to me after reading it for about the hundredth time in unison with other people. It just kind of hit me; it’s so simple and it’s so profound.” The original quotation from King takes on heightened urgency in this time of grave political peril and fragmentation: “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
In terms of sound, Toren drew inspiration from the Alice Coltrane record Journey in Satchidananda (1971). A plaintive oud complements the more standard quartet format, and a meditative atmosphere prevails (except on the subtle Mingus-like swing of “Ignis Fatuus”). She pared down her compositional style for the recording; “I didn’t write much very simple music before this, I used to have to concentrate really hard to play my own music! But I was coming from grad school, where I was in a classical program for composition, and I just wanted to feel free within the sound. It was liberating.
“We still needed to rehearse for it to gel, but there’s a lot of openness, which gives the musicians the opportunity to speak in their own voices.” Coltrane was inspirational in other ways, too. “She was part of a community with Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson and lots of others. Everybody’s playing on each other’s stuff. It’s really no different from us now, the jazz community, we’re just asking each other to play each other’s music, so there’s that sense of community, and it creates a lineage.”
There’s a scene in the superb documentary Bill Evans/Time Remembered (2015), directed by Bruce Spiegel, that describes the pianist’s early fascination with the instrument: he would sit under the piano while his brother played, absorbing it, trying to get inside the sound. I hear that same interiority, that same acquaintance with space, in Toren’s playing. When I told her the Evans story, she said, “That actually resonates a lot for me. On this record, I play some instruments like ringing bells, and you really want to leave a lot of space around them because there are so many overtones happening. Sometimes I’m happy to play one note and just listen to it. One thing I like about free jazz is that you can listen to the space you’re in and it will tell you what to play.”
Toren explores a completely different style performing as a part of the collective known as Ocelot. The compositions are spikier, with odd twists and turns that feel organic. The trio, also featuring Yuma Uesaka on sax and Colin Hinton on percussion, push and pull their way to a hard-wrought unity. “We all have a different style, which makes for a nice shape. We all write for this group knowing that there’s no bass player, so we try to utilize that space and move into the realm of the low end. Throughout there are sections of graphic notation and sections to be improvised. Some parts were very detailed, through-composed, and quite difficult to learn, so it varies a lot.”
Of her collaborators, she says, “Yuma is one of my favorite composers. His ideas are very clearly expressed and effective. With Colin, he plays a lot of different percussion, like gongs and glockenspiel, so there’s a wide range of colors, which I really appreciate. Colin’s pieces are either very, very complex or very simple, nothing in between. He was inspired a lot by Morton Feldman and studied with Tyshawn Sorey, so you can definitely hear that influence. We’re all coming from a little bit of a different place and meeting and trusting it will all work out.”
Toren continues to teach and to study, ever in search of that center that binds the music and allows it to roam. “I took a lesson with Aaron Goldberg once, and he asked, ‘Are you a vegetarian?’ which at the time I was. And he said, ‘You’ve gotta play the meat and potatoes.’ Another way to say it is, if a piece were a tree, you have to get to the root, then you can fill in the leaves.”
The Ocelot recording evolved out of regular touring in 2019 with the band, which Toren undertook, bravely, while pregnant. Since then, there have been few shows, though she “did take part in this thing called Operation Gig. They are doing a mix of putting on outdoor concerts and promoting them. I played one. They blasted out the info and the whole neighborhood showed up, which was really nice.”
When I asked Toren if she felt her music expressed her social ideals or ran as a parallel track with them, she answered, “I’d say closer to the latter. Of course, I was trying to write about the human condition and what I was feeling during the four years of the Trump presidency. But in the end, the music just speaks for itself.” Best to give Dr. King the last word, then:
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.