Rare Candy recently sat down with jazz composer and pianist Cat Toren. Toren and her band recently released Human Kind, a beautiful and wild free jazz album. Rare Candy and Toren discussed John and Alice Coltrane, New York, and the role music has in political resistance.
by Lena Nelson
Rare Candy: Your newest album, Human Kind, is so beautiful. In the album’s liner notes, you explain how much of the proceeds from the album will be donated to the ACLU. You also mention some of your influences for the album, namely John and Alice Coltrane. Tell us more about the Human Kind project and how it all came to be.
Cat Toren: I had already been writing some music in that vibe of Alice Coltrane, but really just for fun. I always knew I’d do something with it one day, but I had no immediate plans. Then, the day after the election, I was having a session with some friends, and we played some of the music that would end up on Human Kind. We were all feeling so charged; we played that music so well. That night I said to myself: “Okay, I have to start this project. I have to write a few more compositions to make a full album.” And so I did that. I could talk a lot about that music and how it all ties in. The music is reminiscent of the Coltrane stuff of the late 60s, that Impulse Records music—also Pharaoh Sanders.
RC: Very political stuff.
Cat Toren: Yeah, and it’s kind of the same stuff going on now. That time and this time have a lot of mirror effect. It just made sense. 1960s free jazz is really influenced by music of the world, although it wasn't really called world music back then. I know John and Alice Coltrane did a lot of traveling, and they were always exploring other places and other instruments. John was getting lessons from Ravi Shankar. So, I have an oud in my band, and that’s just one extra element that in some ways brings it all together. Also, the night of the election I had a gig at Korzo, and Ravi Coltrane was there!
RC: Wow! That’s got to be a sign.
Cat Toren: Yeah! I talked to him not about the project, because I didn’t even know it existed yet. Now I want to tell him about the project, and so I’m just hoping I bump into him again. It was just so cool to meet him.
RC: You said earlier that you think jazz is thriving. I think it’s thriving too, but at least in my experience, it’s being ingested less by the younger generations. Do you feel like bringing back free form jazz in a time where its history makes it so politically relevant makes jazz more accessible to young people growing up in this crazy world? Are you hopeful that more young people might turn to the music of John and Alice Coltrane to find a respite, some meaning to the madness?
Cat Toren: Of course I hope so. Human Kind is also very much personal music though. It is reflective of that time and that music I love, but it’s also reflective of now and of me. It’s my expression of what I have to say. I think every jazz musician that’s living now is doing the same thing. Playing to the moment that is.
RC: I think I mostly bring up John and Alice Coltrane because you speak about them in the liner notes of Human Kind, and because they were such interesting people and important civil rights activists. But don’t misunderstand me: Human Kind and your music isn’t derivative at all. It’s extraordinarily unique and different from many of the jazz albums coming out lately. I recently played Inside the Sun for a group of people the other night at WKCR, and it blew people’s minds. I’m curious, given its peculiarity, how that jazz came to you. Many people have their jazz discovery story. How did jazz first come to you and how did you end up taking it and deconstructing it to find your distinct sound?
Cat Toren: When I was a kid I didn’t listen to jazz. I listened to grunge, rock, and pop, but I played classical piano in the concert band at school. When I was in high school, in the 11th or 12th grade, I joined the jazz ensemble, and it was one of the most fun things I had ever done. I felt so changed. I basically stopped playing classical music—although now I play a little classical again. I switched my focus entirely. I had been practicing rock guitar and stuff, but I just stopped doing all that, totally switched to jazz. But at first I was mostly liking the dance music, the old big band swing stuff. Duke Ellington etc.
RC: When did you first hear John Coltrane?
Cat Toren: I first heard his stuff with the Miles Davis Quintet. I was really into that, but that’s still pretty straight ahead. Growing up in Vancouver, there’s a big new music and free improv scene. That scene has people coming from all different walks of life and genres of music. Classical people meet up with jazz people etc., and since I play classical and jazz it really worked for me. I studied composition with another woman that played jazz piano but also has her doctorate in classical composing. I just was listening to so much music, and eventually, as life goes on, you make it your own, right? Those influences all come together, and they funnel into your sound.
RC: Rare Candy has been asking artists this month, given the climate, about what they feel the role of music is in politics, about whether or not artists have certain obligations to address the times. Your project is obviously very political— donating 60% of the profits from Human Kind to the ACLU—but I’m curious about whether you feel there is more general obligation of the artist to give a message. Do you believe music venues and jazz clubs are also spaces for political activism? Is there a pressing responsibility on the artist to address the things going on around us?
Cat Toren: Yes and no. I always think there’s room for art to just help people get out of whatever stress they're in and just have fun. However, I think art has a huge role in society. It always has. Art and science are always the first things to go under oppressive governments. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on, and to make sure that if you feel like you have a platform and a voice, you use it. You should say something. I really do think that. My platform might be small, but I felt motivated to say something. Even if you make a difference in just one person’s life, if you tell one person something they hadn't heard before, then it’s worth it.
RC: It’s pretty powerful when an artist on stage addresses what’s going on. Even if it’s just a very simple message of “love each other” or “resist what’s going on.” By speaking to people, often times younger people, you can be really special and also really impactful. It’s good to hear people that are making things that you think are beautiful, talking about love.
Cat Toren: I agree. I like what you said, that even a simple message can be impactful. What I really did not want was to seem divisive and like I was only talking to liberals. Honestly what I believe is just that kindness and human rights are not questionable.
RC: Coming from Canada and being involved in the conversation in New York with political music, do you ever feel like your role may be different?
Cat Toren: I was a little nervous at first, coming in as an outsider because “what do I know,” right? But I don’t believe that. I live in the world, and I know what it’s like to watch people be disenfranchised or mistreated because I’m a citizen of the world. It doesn't matter where you come from. It’s just about treating people with respect. Where it gets political is in the details. Voter disenfranchisement etc., those are political issues, but the big issue is not even political. It’s just don’t be a jerk.
RC: Human kindness. I’d love for you to talk about the name of that album and the beautiful, simple message it imparts.
Cat Toren: When I was working on this music, I told myself I was not going to overthink anything. I’m kind of a chronic over-thinker, and when I’m composing I’m often obsessing over every single bar. Every note-- And that’s not what Alice Coltrane does! She’s just letting her heart out. Her music takes you on this journey, and it’s really blues-y too. Really rooted in the blues and that spiritual free jazz sound. It’s just so good. So I said to myself: “Okay, I’m not going to overthink this stuff. I’m going to make a choice, and it’s going to feel right, and I’m going to go with it. If it doesn't feel right; I’m not even going to sit there anymore. I’m going to leave the piano and do something else.” It took me no time to write a single piece, but I wrote the full album spaced out over a long period of time. If I wasn't feeling it, I would just do something else. The same thing with the name. Human Kind came to me, and I thought it felt like the right name. That was the end of it.
RC: Tell me about your band members. How are they special and how have they influenced the project? You’ve said that you felt like you all played especially well that day after the election when you came together.
Cat Toren: I guess I’ll go one by one. Jake Leckie is the bass player. I’ve known him probably for 6 or 7 years, since I moved here. He moved to San Francisco actually, and so I didn’t see him for a while. He’s one of the nicest guys—he makes everything so easy, and we play sessions together quite frequently. Xavier Del Castillo, he plays tenor saxophone on the album. I met him at a gig in Montreal. It was a jazz composers collective where the curator asks people from different cities to come and bring their compositions and rehearse them during the day, and then perform them at night during the jazz festival. We met doing that last summer.
I met the drummer, Matt Honor, at Banff Center for Performing Arts. We were doing a workshop there. The four of us had a session, and I hadn't even seen Matt of Xavier in months maybe years. That was just the day we planned the session for. Yoshie I hired later on. I had never met him, but he was recommended by Jake as a really great player on both oud and guitar. I guess it goes back to not overthinking things. We just felt the vibe, and we rolled with it. Now I feel like we’re better friends than we were before. I just want to give the biggest shoutout to them because they did a lot of work for no pay. None of us are really making a profit off of this stuff. That means that they really care a lot about the project, and that means a lot to me. We’re actually planning a little tour now.
RC: That’s wonderful!
Cat Toren: I played the music in Vancouver too, with Vancouver based musicians. I’ll go back there this summer for Vancouver jazz fest to play some music with those guys. I’m trying to bring it to other places and countries. It’s a global issue.
RC: Yeah, it’s certainly a global issue. When I ask about your place as a Canadian, I’m mostly curious about your experience living here and experiencing everything currently going on, while still being from a different country. What happens here has a big effect there. Human Kind in many ways seems to be all about being connected. I guess that’s kind of what jazz is about too, right?
Cat Toren: You’re right. It’s all about being connected to the musicians in your band. When we went to the studio most of that work was work we wanted to do to get the word out there. I wrote those liner notes that explain the project . . . I do understand the question about being Canadian. I still do kind of feel like an outsider, even though now I’m pretty integrated into the scene here. It was just so different when I first moved here. I couldn’t even really imagine how different it would be.
RC: Do you think the way people make music is different here? Is the jazz scene much different from Vancouver’s?
Cat Toren: I’ve found the people I feel comfortable around. It’s hard to say because there are so many different little mini-scenes here. You kind of float between scenes when you first move here, and then you just naturally fall into the one that fits and feels comfortable.
RC: Do you think the message of Human Kind ever effects the playing?
Cat Toren: Those days right after the election, you just don't think about those little things you'd normally worry about. You don’t care about those little things in life because you can see that there are a lot of big things going on. We’re artists, and we have a job to do. Everyone wants to tell the message they want to tell. I think you play better when you aren't overthinking.
RC: Do you think that phenomenon of being zoomed out and less concerned with the small details can especially aid free jazz?
Cat Toren: Oh yeah. Definitely. You’re just more in the moment. You have to be connected. To the people in the band and also to your higher self. You're serving the sounds that are happening right at that present time.
RC: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Cat Toren: Yeah! I do. It’s hard to talk about because it’s so hard to explain. I have favorite pieces of music that completely transform me and take me away. I almost can’t listen to them willy-nilly. There are certain string quartets where you just have to block off some time, sit or lie down, turn your phone off, and let it happen.
RC: Which string quartets are you thinking about?
Cat Toren: The one that came to mind first was John Luther Adams “The Wind in High Places.” It’s gorgeous. All of his music is gorgeous, but that one especially.
RC: It makes you feel something inexplicable?
Cat Toren: Yeah, that’s the spiritual element. When it can’t be explained. It’s the same with that particular spiritual free jazz. They’re channeling something that you can’t explain. I wish I was better at talking about it. I was doing a lot of reading about those iconic albums that I love so much, and I was reading some great articles that seem to explain it so well. (Laughs). I’m just feeling it.
RC: What have you been listening to? What’s some of your favorite jazz being made in New York right now?
Cat Toren: I thought you might ask this, and so I was thinking, “Oh what’s the last thing I listened to?” It was Run the Jewels. I’m obsessed with Run the Jewels. It’s not jazz, but it’s really good. I went to their show on Monday. They’re in my brain now. I have some friends who’ve released some really amazing records lately as well. Michael Blake, Bria Skonberg and Sean Cronin's Very Good (all former Vancouverites living in NYC). There's also Susan Kander who just released a lovely classical album. Sebastien Ammann and Matt Mitchell, pianists in NY.
RC: How has New York influenced you and your music?
Cat Toren: The diversity has influenced me a lot. Vancouver is diverse too, but the demographic is different. I was really comfortable in that demographic.
RC: Do you feel a little more pushed out of your comfort zone here?
Cat Toren: Yeah, there’s more tension here. Racial tension. There really isn’t where I’m from. There are certainly issues in Vancouver that need to be resolved, and the government has to work on certain relationships, but I haven't felt the same tension there. Feeling so much tension here, I don’t know what to do with it. I still don’t really know what to do with it.
RC: Does that come out in your music? During interactions between musicians?
Cat Toren: Sure, I think everything comes out in music. Music is great because I find that people usually get along and want to serve the music. There’s a common language.
RC: Jazz is such an American music—coming from minstrel music and all these other things—it arose out of American history in such an interesting way. Its history is filled with pain and suffering. And then free jazz and the Coltranes are so influenced by world music. I’m curious if you consider jazz a type of social justice in itself? Does jazz bring people together in a way that’s just totally unique to the genre?
Cat Toren: When you look back at the history of jazz it’s had a massive political influence. I can state some of the facts: Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddamn” at Carnegie Hall. That producer, Norman Grance, he wouldn't let his tour perform in any venue that separated black and white seating. There’s a huge power in jazz. Although jazz may not be as mainstream popular as it was, it can, and does, still have a huge influence.
Listen to Cat Toren: http://cat-toren.com/human-kind-project/