Tori Handsley ‘As We Stand’ 2LP/CD (Cadillac) 5/5

‘As We Stand’ marks the debut album from the multi-talented Tori Handsley released through Cadillac Records.

A revered harpist, pianist, composer and improviser… ‘multi-talented’ as an umbrella term may lack a certain pizzazz when attempting to translate all of the, frankly, exceptional talents that Handsley brings to the table. A frequent live performer (prior to 2020, that is!) and boasting an extensive list of in-studio and live collaborations including Binker & Moses, Shabaka Hutchings, Jake Long and Kairos 4tet.

Handsley’s first foray into centre stage came in the form of the self-titled EP by the Tori Handsley Trio featuring Harry Pope on drums and Kisha Mullov-Abbado on double bass. Looking back on the four-track EP now, it’s exciting to see, what has now become, early incarnations of songs that would go on to form some key moments of the album some six years later including ‘Setting Into The Sun’, ‘What’s In A Tune’ and ‘Kestrel’ (the latter of which presents Chantelle Nandi on lead vocals).

As indicated above, while the time in between projects has been lengthy it has certainly been productive and now – six years later – we see Handsley ready to present a project befitting her multitude of talents.

The dream team that comprise Handsley’s trio for ‘As We Stand’ include the profoundly versatile bassist Ruth Goller whose work across a variety of collectives and ensembles including Vula Viel, Warmer Than Blood and Kamao Quintet, amongst several others, makes her a valuable contributor to this project. And on drums is one of the artists most associated with the UK’s current jazz explosion – a key contributor to projects from Zara McFarlane, Nubya Garcia, Joe Armon-Jones and a revered solo artist in his own right, Moses Boyd. The project further benefits from the inclusion of vocalist Sahra Gure who excels on her vocal contributions for the album as she has for her own ‘Love Me With Me’ EP.

Over the course of the ten tracks on ‘As We Stand’, Handsley masterfully creates a soundscape as innovative as it is bold. While there are songs that feature the harp within lush arrangements and compositions that accentuate everything beautiful about the harp as an instrument, there are songs that seem to relish subverting the aforementioned expectations, particularly evident on a song like the album closer, ‘What’s In A Tune’. A really fantastic song that charges through at a joyously fervent pace – it’s become a track indicative of Handsley’s rewrite-the-rulebook approach to playing and composing.

There’s something almost strategic about ‘What’s In A Tune’ as the album closer – with many of the songs throughout touching on themes of environmental issues that impact us on a global scale, closing with a number depicting such urgency reflects much of Handsley’s over-arching message of our need to act immediately or risk facing the consequences. ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ – which features a sublime contribution from Sahra Gure – is another strong album highlight and one that focuses on the increasing levels of neglect for the oceans namely through the dangers attached to the rise of plastic waste.

While much will rightfully be made about Handsley’s standout performance with the harp, her skill with the instrument that first captured her musical passions – the piano – really warrants special mention, as well as the album, really does boast some excellent playing throughout. Hopefully, a follow-up to ‘As We Stand’ won’t come after a further six years but even if it does, there’s this wonderful album to keep us company until then.

Imran Mirza