TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 21-July 1, visit coastaljazz.ca for schedule and ticket information.
THERE was a time when pianist Cat Toren was ready to quit playing music.
At 17 years old, the stress of mastering classical compositions was getting to be too much for the Argyle secondary student.
"I always felt like I had to play the song perfectly and I never could," says Toren, now 29.
But before she was able to abandon the keyboard forever, she discovered a genre of music that granted her the freedom to make mistakes, to express herself creatively and, most importantly, to be herself.
"I turned to jazz because I liked improvising, and composing was my favourite thing about music," says Toren, who has two record releases under her name and has contributed to numerous other albums. "You don't have to have so many rules all the time."
Toren drew early inspiration from big-name jazz artists such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. Today, she says she is influenced by her network of creative music friends and colleagues.
For many music listeners, a true appreciation for jazz is something that must be cultivated over time.
"I think for more modern jazz you either need to have a certain taste or a certain personality to get into it right away," says Toren, who evidently had an appetite for the musical genre right off the bat.
After high school she earned her bachelor of jazz studies from Capilano University and, almost three years ago, left North
Vancouver for the thriving arts borough of Brooklyn, New York where she teaches, composes and works as a contributing musician for a number of ensembles.
Toren has returned to the Lower Mainland to perform at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which runs June 21 to July 1. She is scheduled to play several free and ticketed shows with the Cat Toren Band, the Cat Toren Standards Trio and the Pugs and Crows quintet, which won Instrumental Album of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards.
Performing at the Vancouver jazz festival is something Toren looks forward to every year.
"It's the best," she states simply. "The (Vancouver music) community loves each other so much that they want you to succeed and you feel that energy and you feel really good.
Sometimes in New York you feel like everyone's really critical, so it's more difficult."
Although she is active in the New York music scene and has many longtime friends whom she met during educational stays at the Banff Centre, the city's vast arts community can be intimidating at times.
"It's enormous," Toren says of jazz in New York. "(In Vancouver) I feel like you could know pretty much everyone in the creative music scene, or at least by one degree of separation. In New York that's not at all true. There's just so many different little communities of music, which is overwhelming but also really exciting."
Toren describes her Brooklyn apartment as "basically one big room" with a bed, dining table, bookshelf and baby grand piano all competing for space. It's here, in moments of creative solitude, where she writes her music. Sometimes the inspiration hits her fast and hard; other times she has to improvise at the keyboard for a long while before entering "the zone."
"It's kind of a mindset that you get into and, depending on where you are in your life, you get into it a lot or a little," she explains.
Discovering jazz was not the only thing that motivated Toren to continue down a musical path. As a child, she would climb onto the bench in front of her grandparents' piano and bang out tunes. Her family recognized a natural talent and signed her up for lessons.
"Every time I wanted to quit my parents would say 'You can't quit because you're good at it,' and then I would get all rejuvenated," she says.
Today, Toren's music library includes plenty of the classical masterworks she was introduced to during those early lessons.
"I still really like Beethoven a lot, for example, and Mozart and Bach, but I wouldn't want to listen to only that because it's pretty predictable now."
She recently decided to revisit classical music and is taking lessons from a 92-year-old "piano guru" on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The experience has revived her classical appreciation, she says. But unlike her 17-year-old self, she no longer strives for a copybook execution.
"You don't need to be a perfectionist when it comes to music," she says. "You have to be yourself."
© Copyright 2013