UK Electric Harpist Tori Handsley Delivers Long Awaited Innovative Debut – ‘As We Stand’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Tori Handsley brings a unique sound through this accessible long-awaited debut – As We Stand. Her trio features Mercury Prize 2020 drummer and producer Moses Boyd and Melt Yourself Down’s Ruth Goller on bass. Handsley’s signature instrument is the electric harp which by turns sounds like a guitar, an electric piano, or conventional acoustic harp. She also writes, sings, plays piano, and creates effects. Her reputation certainly precedes her. She is a major figure in the UK jazz scene as artist, producer, and curator. Her raw style and innovative approach as a harpist has led to performances with the pinnacle of UK jazz artists including Shabaka Hutchings, Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Binker Golding, Nikki Yeoh, Jake Long, Pat Thomas, and Nigel Kennedy. She also featured heavily on a multi award-winning jazz duo Binker & Moses’ critically acclaimed albums Journey to the Mountain of Forever and Alive in the East. Tori also curates and co-hosts Freedom: The Art of Improvisation, voted One Of The Top 6 Sessions in the UK by the Evening Standard, with Orphy Robinson MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire], Cleveland Watkiss MBE and Straight No Chaser’s Paul Bradshaw, a monthly evening show that has now been running for over five years.

 She begins with the brisk instrumental, “Rivers of Mind” that showcases her wonderful electric harp stylings.  On “Convolution” she switches to piano, as her rhythm mates lay down the pulsating groove, with Boyd flourishing on the traps. “Polar Retreat” is an extended contemplative piano ballad.  She comments on themes of the album, primarily intended to be an environmental statement, “this album means so much to me and distils my observations, feelings and deepest expressions, reflecting on where we stand at this point in time, and our place in nature. It is the right time to stand and see the disruption humans have caused to nature’s balance and our growing disconnection from our natural landscape…This album culminates many years of research, developing my own sound and techniques to communicate and express themes closest to my heart. This journey has brought times of elation and taken me through times of feeling in the dark, as you stand out from the trodden path, but it is the extraordinary power of human communication which keeps me going.”

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” four tracks in, begins in gentle, airy fashion with the first of her three vocal tracks, transforming midway with Gollar’s throbbing basslines and Handsley’s electric keyboards into an unexpected instrumental excursion, later plucking the electric harp along with her vocals, as the energy rises. “Home” is another contemplative lengthy vehicle for her harp as it floats above the dense rhythm undercurrent.  This is the epitome of the trio’s sound that combines frenetic and potent drumming with a driving bassline and distorted yet intricate and impassioned harp sections, a delicate balance between finesse and raw power exemplified by the second half of the tune. 

“Settling Into The Sun” begins in ostinato and gradually builds into a lyrical Gollar statement, after which Handsley’s harp playing veers into first a classical mode, and then more of an electronic soundscape. Keep in mind that this is music borne out of the crossover London jazz scene where many cultural elements meet. “Intwination” flows along, much like the opening sections of “Home.” “As We Stand’, the title track, showcases her passionate vocal as does the whispery, seductive, piano imbued “Kestrel,” another that morphs into almost rock-like power in its mid-section, closing with powerful chords. The final track, “What’s In A Tune,” has been issued as a single, and is the most rock-oriented tune on the album, heavy in sound with the harp plucking assuming prominence midway as the dense backdrop recedes, before resuming and thickening at a brisker pace as the trio rides off to an exhilarating climax.

Handsley started playing the piano at the age of three and the harp at the age of six. At the age of ten, she received a music scholarship to study at Bedales School which provided her the opportunity to perform in public at a young age. Due to the difficulties of finding teachers and the limited repertoire for the harp, considered a mostly classical instrument, she decided to continue her studies on the piano. However, a few years later, she reversed course, deciding to explore other ways of performing on the harp outside of the usual traditional ways. This was also helped by the fact that from a young age, her father introduced her to Miles Davis, Bird, Dizzy, Keith Jarrett and many more. The freedom of improvisation excited and intrigued her. Mentorship with musicians such as Pat Thomas, John Parricelli and Park Stickney, forged her sound and techniques in composing and arranging for the harp. 

Handsley’s debut is captivating due to both the unique sound of the rarely played electric harp, and the unpredictability of the material which she renders in sections, taking the listener on a sometimes bumpy, but ultimately thrilling ride. 


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