Cat Toren’s Human Kind (Private Press) 4/5

This is the fourth release by the Vancouver born pianist Cat Toren. There is an obvious soulful spirit to the compositions and performances throughout the album, one that is clearly influenced by the free-form jazz of the late 60’s, which to my mind can be no bad thing. The band leader is joined by Xavier Del Castillo on tenor sax, Yoshie Fruchter on oud and guitar, Jake Leckie on bass and Matt Honor on drums.Human Kind has a vibrant, earthy and spiritual feel to it, which in no small part is due to the nature of the writing, coupled with some wonderful playing from saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo. Reminiscent perhaps of Charles Lloyd, his performance throughout this session enlightens and awakens something deep within. The compositions themselves also remind me of Charles Lloyd in some respect. I’m thinking of early Lloyd when he first burst onto the scene in the late 60’s and how his writing developed through the 70’s and 80’s, particularly on his ECM recordings with pianist Bobo Stenson. The tunes have an effortless time and space to them, with Toren fluently and skilfully leading the band into expressionistic and adventurous territory.

With a mix of acoustic piano and keyboards, the album’s six tracks sit nicely together, with the drums and bass underpinning everything nicely. The sax sparkles, offering both light and shade in abundance. My only comment is that for me personally, I did sometimes find the oud rather out of place here. There are times when it works well, being utilised as a textural addition to the feel of the music, but I often felt it sounded too out of step with the overall balance, sounding somewhat surplus to requirements in this particular setting.

Toren’s music is heavily influenced by a personal expression of how a resurgence of the civil rights movement is upon us, and this resonates in the music she makes. In the late 60’s John and Alice Coltrane and contemporaries were bringing jazz to new levels of experimentation and cross-culturalism, the sociopolitical climate at the time fraught with tension. Whilst Toren’s music shares the same sentiment as her predecessors, it is perhaps in some ways more easy to identify with, and ultimately to enjoy. This album certainly holds true to that tradition and will benefit organisations that fight for civil liberties and human rights. And when all is said and done, taking the music being made in isolation, this is one fine contemporary jazz album and well worth investigation.

Mike Gates