Tori Handsley – As We Stand
(Cadillac Records. CD review by Graham Spry)
After having learnt to play the harp at the age of six, Tori Handsley became disillusioned with her instrument because of its lack of a repertoire in which she could express herself, so she chose to concentrate her studies on performing at the piano.
Nowadays, this decision might seem strange in a time where the harp has become a much more prominent instrument in jazz and other forms of music. In the last few years, harpists such as Ruth Wall, Catrin Finch, Brandee Younger and Alina Bzhezhinska have all released albums that have attracted critical and popular acclaim, but until recently there were very few models for a jazz harpist other than Iro Haarla from Finland and, of course, Alice Coltrane.
Nonetheless, Handsley can’t be accused of having been unduly influenced by either musician in her debut album as leader, As We Stand, in which she plays both harp and piano. Although her influences often come from beyond jazz, Handsley’s music is grounded in a love of improvisation, as witnessed by the monthly session at the Vortex in Hackney, Freedom: The Art of Improvisation, that she curates and co-hosts.
Handsley has been very fortunate with her mentors that include Nigel Kennedy with whom she collaborated on his Duke Ellington tour in 2010. This led to the opportunity to engage fully in the increasingly vibrant London jazz scene where she has since performed with talents such as Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Binker Golding and Nikki Yeoh. She was featured on the Binker and Moses albums Journey to the Mountain of Forever and Alive in the East, from which developed a longer-term musical relationship with Mercury nominee Moses Boyd who plays drums in her band. In addition to Handsley, who plays electric harp and piano, the third member of her trio on electric bass is the excellent Ruth Goller. The Tori Handsley trio is supplemented on the album by vocalist Sahra Gure who won the Musicians’ Company Young Jazz Musician Award in 2019.
The chief inspiration for Handsley’s album is her profound concern with the perilous state of the environment which is also the focus of her course of lectures at the Royal College of Art: ‘Drawing on Conservation’. This is most apparent in the lyrics of those tracks on the album which feature Gure’s vocals including the title track As We Stand. This is the closest there is to a manifesto on the album and features a stripped-down duet of Handsley’s harp and Gure’s vocals.
The lyrics of Kestrel celebrate the natural order and those of Out of Sight, Out of Mind examine how it is possible to disregard the ever-worsening environmental crisis whilst also letting Goller shine on the bass in the central passage. Some tracks steer close to the instrumental jazz trio tradition such as Convolution, Intwination and Settling into the Sun. In Rivers of Mind and What’s in a Tune, the harp is used both as a rhythm instrument to drive the momentum and as a means to signal that the music should become more placid.
After a deceptively calm harp solo at the start of Home, with the help of Boyd’s drums the track later becomes the album’s most free. Polar Retreat, the single release from the album is one of its highlights in which Handsley’s piano is very much to the fore. This relatively tranquil composition fits well with the polar landscape of the accompanying music video.
The general mood of As We Stand varies from track to track: sometimes calm and reflective and sometimes propulsive and energetic. Whether using the harp or the piano, Handsley balances well the passages in which her chosen instrument is in the lead and where it is an equal member of the trio. The album is released on Cadillac Records, founded by John Jack in 1973, which previously focused on an earlier generation of adventurous British jazz musicians such as Mike Westbrook, Stan Tracey, Joe Harriott and Bobby Wellins, so perhaps this release represents an equally adventurous new direction for the label’s future.
LINK: As We Stand on Bandcamp
Categories: CD review