If it hadn’t already been claimed by Albert Ayler, “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe” might have been an ideal title for the second release from Cat Toren’s Human Kind. Over the course of the album’s four exploratory pieces, the Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based pianist and her adventurous, deeply attuned quintet tap into the profound tradition of spiritual jazz exemplified by pioneers like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, while offering a visceral balm for today’s turbulent reality. Toren’s Human Kind offered more than an excellent taster on their self-titled debut release, a superb album in itself, laying the foundation for “Scintillating Beauty”. The ultimate effect is vividly captured by the album’s actual title, in exhilarating style.
Available on CD, with a vinyl pressing due later in the year, this recording possesses a uniquely enthralling and invigorating kind of beauty. Music can be deeply affecting, on many different levels, and when mind, heart and soul come together in the way it does here, there can be no better listening experience. A practitioner of sound healing, Toren creates music that soothes the soul while quickening the pulse. “Scintillating Beauty illustrates how musical improvisation is a form of conscious communication,” Toren writes in her liner notes. “This album is being released during a time where voices who have been in the foreground instead amplify voices that have been kept in the background, so we may achieve a more perfect harmony going forward.”
Three years after its self-titled debut, Human Kind reconvenes with the same stellar line-up: Toren, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. The group initially formed during the 2016 election season, as the mood of the country was turning decidedly bleaker. This album was composed and recorded as Toren was feeling a glimmer of hope arising from that contentious period. Though its release coincides with an uncertain future marked by quarantine and mass protests, the pianist continues to feel a cautious optimism as another election cycle nears. “I was feeling a surge of hope until very recently,” Toren says. “With everything we’re going through now, I honestly feel a little conflicted, but I don’t want to diminish the fact that hope is something that we need and that was what was in my mind writing the music. The music is definitely tinged with some darker tones, but I meant for it to ultimately be uplifting and cathartic.”
Inspiration for the music also came from two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. that Toren includes in the liner notes. The first, from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, gave the album its title as well as a pointed social imperative: “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.” An incredibly poignant quote still very relevant for our times. With everything going on in the world at the moment, it is understandably sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But we have to. It is as important now as it ever was for us to take inspiration from great human beings such as Dr King, remaining true to our beliefs that with the simple yet often elusive ethos of loving-kindness to all, we can make a better world. We have to try.
Even if we were to disregard the powerful meanings that inspire Toren’s music, this album would still sound magnificent. Understanding where and why the composer is coming from just adds gravitas. I feel involved in her music. I feel drawn to it. If I allow myself to enter completely in to it, its expressive, emotive nature becomes a part of me. I can relate to the highs and lows, to the many shades of light and dark, and to the life-affirming power that the music undoubtedly has to offer. For me personally, the four tracks take me on a journey filled with wonderment. I can hear the inspiration of Alice and John Coltrane, yet I am also reminded of Keith Jarrett’s work in the 70s with his two brilliant quartets. Sometimes I can almost touch the beauty of Jarrett’s European Quartet with Jan Garbarek, as they move from melodious lyricism to experimental flare. And at other times it’s as if I’m on the front row of one of Jarrett’s American Quartet gigs, listening to Dewey Redman explore the outer regions of free improvisation.
Toren hopes that the music of Human Kind acts not only as a response to the world around it, but helps to exert that healing force that music can provide. For me, she achieves this, and more besides. Her music is empowering. Enter into the spirit of her music and like me, you too may well feel spiritually energised and mindfully uplifted.