Album Review: Tori Handsley – ‘As We Stand’

FOREVER associated with folklore whimsy, celestial mystery and the delicate songstress, maybe the harp will always have an image problem?

Of course in jazz there have inevitably been those who have been able to shove this immovable object away from its own clichés – think the improvisational drive of Dorothy Ashby or spiritual lift of Alice Coltrane’s recordings – and now within the energetic UK scene we have Tori Handsley making her own spikey contribution to the harp makeover movement.

Tori’s first solo album, As We Stand, is out now via the wonderful Cadillac Records, the label that was DIY before DIY was a thing.

Her name is probably familiar to you, particularly if you have been trying to keep on board the nu-jazz rollercoaster, as one of the players on two seminal Binker and Moses records, Journey To The Mountain of Forever and Alive In The East; so she has been part of that whole London-based collective since the threads came together. But now is the time to turn the spotlight on herself. As Tori says: “This album culminates many years of research, developing my own sound and techniques to communicate and express themes closest to my heart.”

As We Stand is a record that is deceptively individual and distinctly inventive. With a core group of Handsley on harp, FX and piano, her old compadre Moses Boyd on drums, the dynamic Ruth Goller (Melt Yourself Down, Vula Viel) on bass and the emerging new vocalist Sahra Gure, the quality should not be a surprise. But it’s the focus on making every sound count, on economy and clarity rather than clutter and excess, that gives the record its solid foundation.

“Rivers of Mind” begins the album; a tune that naturally gathers momentum. Starting with a slow procession of piano chords bridged by Boyd’s characteristic fast, forward drum fills, there’s that sense of tense anticipation. Suddenly Handley’s electric harp comes spinning out, riding over the surging rhythm, resonant, slightly distorted and crackling with energy. It’s a sound that’s on the edge of losing control held together by her magic touch but with a free spirit of its own; maybe harp purists would shout ‘Judas’.

After this breathless opener follow “Convolution” and “Polar Retreat”, eagerly testing the boundaries that this unconventional trio have set themselves. Both tunes unfold within a sonic spaciousness that echoes the deepest Nordic jazz as the players interchange roles and position with an unconscious ease. Soon you begin to realise that the commitment on As We Stand is to the overall sound and atmosphere rather than showcasing individuals, it’s a group thing.

“Out of Sight/Out of Mind” brings a slight shift and represents the album turning its first corner. Enter Sahra Gure on sultry, smoke edged vocals, leaning into a crisp, clean melody that blurs Sade with the innocence of Tracey Thorn. The song gears up in the final section, dropping into Ruth Goller’s throbbing bass skank for Handsley and Boyd to bounce against then pumping into the pulse of a nu-soul outro. As Sahra Gure croons “Layers of blue” over the teasing wind down you feel like you have been eased through an essential seven minutes of new London music.

From thereon As We Stand calmly encourages attention as it works towards its 60-minute plus playtime. “Home” takes the long road through four sections with Handsley’s harp in full flourish, from steely beauty to chunky chord progressions to tense pedal driven feedback. The title track affirms the album’s central ecological concerns with gentle power as Sahra Gure’s effortless voice threads around Handsley’s textured harp.

Equally memorable, “Settling Into The Sun” climbs above some rumbling dischord and follows Goller’s wonderful scaling bass to lift off into a riffing, dramatic prog ending.

That prog undercurrent rises again on the album closer “What’s in a Tune”, as it skips into action with some prime Canterbury phrases pepped up by Boyd’s faultless, skittering beat. There’s even an almighty fuzz bass section and a classical leaning, deliciously distorted harp breakout. As the bullish chords pile up and the cut pushes on, the trio hit that level of post-rock elevation that can only end one way, with final curtain drum rolls.

This is one of those records that doesn’t shout its importance or try to be wilfully different. The sound is kept live and raw, the edges are kept in and the relish of four players’ group experience is there on the surface.

Tori Handsley admits that the album means a great deal to her, drawing on her reflections of ‘where we stand at this point in time and our place in nature’. Over time its destined to reach out and connect with a lot more people on many different levels. As We Stand has that honest, enduring quality.

Tori Handsley’s As We Stand is out now on vinyl and CD via Cadillac Records; you can order yours via Rough Trade.

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