Tori Handsley on influences and improvisation
Harpist and pianist Tori Handsley is due to release her debut album, As We Stand, on 27th November. Having made her mark on the UK circuit, as well as co-running a regular improvisation workshop, Tori is one of the many prolific figureheads of this country’s jazz scene. I caught up with her to discuss her early interest in the harp, key figures in her life, and the future of the planet.
So starting from the beginning, you mention on your website that you started playing piano first, and played the harp for a little while before losing interest in it. Was there a single moment that sparked your interest again, or was it something gradual?
I never really stopped playing, it was always around. You can’t get rid of harps, they’re so huge! But you’re right, I was playing the piano more; I started playing from about three when my mum taught me, and that was a massive part of my sonic world. The piano has always given me that versatility and percussive diversity, that real breadth of sound. You can achieve that with a harp, but it’s less obvious. You can be super intuitive and free, I think, especially with composing - I still tend to do a lot of my composing on the piano.
To go back to your question, there were a few things that really helped me. My dad took me to see a lot of music when I was young; we’d go and see some particular gigs that I do remember as some real life-changing moments. We went to see Courtney Pine at the Zodiac in Oxford - it’s now called the Carling Academy - I remember it being a really intimate gig, and he was signing CDs afterwards. We had a little chat and I asked him about his music, and immediately he said ”What do YOU do?”, even though I hadn’t mentioned anything about being an artist! It was the same when I met Branford Marsalis, that was another important gig for me… I loved the way he presented his music, the way he presented his band. I think he had a very young drummer at the time and he said why he’d picked him; “he’s not about the show, he’s about the music, and he’s here not to impress people, he’s here to deliver and communicate”. So yeah, there were a few particular gigs that really made a massive difference to me. I think that’s part of the artistic process - sometimes we just absorb, and need to be inspired, and life happens, then you express life.
You mentioned some players there that aren’t harpists but, as far as jazz harpists go, have you got any favourites that you always go back to? I noticed on your website you’ve got a video of you and your trio playing some Dorothy Ashby, so I guess she must be one of them…
You’ve done your homework, mate! We did do some interpretations of Dorothy tunes, yeah - ‘Soul Vibrations’ is one I really love playing. I’m mainly a composer and an improviser, but arranging is also something I really enjoy, asking how you honour that music, and do what’s right for it - not decorating it or adding stuff that sounds cool but isn’t appropriate to the composer or their intention. So yeah, Dorothy Ashby was a massive influence, and probably the biggest influence of a harpist on my work. If you’re a [Alice] Coltrane fan, I also fell in love with this album called Turiya Sings, have you heard that one?
I haven’t heard that one, no…
Right, you need to play it at about three in the morning, with your favourite drink - if you drink - turn the lights down low, and listen to that album. It’s spiritual and heavy, and it’s so different compared to her other work. I love her albums with Joe Henderson and other people, but for me that album is just so pure. I mention it because we did some interpretations of tunes from that as well, at the Jazz Café, I think in 2019. We did it in our own way; dynamics are super important to me, so I talked with the band about really building and grabbing those crescendos. So yeah, big fan of Alice, but I think Dorothy is my main inspiration for her feel and attack, and the way she plays.
I guess it’s not an especially common instrument in general, outside of classical music, but even then it’s quite a specific texture. What is it about the harp that makes it work for you in the context of jazz and your music?
The style “jazz” matters less to me, insofar that if people hear jazz in my work, I’m very honoured by that. There’s a great legacy of jazz musicians that really lifted me up, so there’s definitely influences from jazz but probably more from an improvisatory approach. I would say it doesn’t necessarily “work” as a jazz instrument, it’s more how the player plays it -, it’s your voice, with your instrument. For me, when I’m playing the harp, I’m asking ”am I being genuine when I play it?”. For one song I may play harp, one song I may play piano.
You also run an improvisation session, so I imagine it’s quite important to your approach?
One-hundred percent. It’s about expression and improvisation, seeing things in the world and finding your way to comment or share ideas. I’d say I’m an improviser rather than a jazz musician, per se.
There’s not been much going on for performing musicians this year, for obvious reasons. In normal circumstances I supposed you’d be about to start a tour off the back of this new album. How have you been keeping yourself busy this year?
For sure it’s a tough time for everyone, for most of the people in my circles, people have lost their jobs and it’s tough. But I think being a creative person, it makes you more used to dealing with the unexpected. I think in some respects, creatives are quite well-equipped for this time. For me I’ve been calling it my “burrowing time”, like a little… I don’t know, what’s a burrowing animal? Like a… badger?
A rabbit? Rabbits burrow.
Yeah, let’s go with that, I’m like a rabbit burrowing away. I hope for some good things that come out of this time - I think it’s a time for all of us to stand back and really look at our work. In fact, it’s given me more determination and more focus with creating the album - from the artwork, mastering, all the icing on the cake - that allows us to go “here you are everyone!”. We mastered the album over the summer, and I couldn’t go to the studio for obvious reasons, so it was done remotely. With the mixing engineer (Dil Harris) I was there with him, and we really carved it out creatively together. Guy Davie did the mastering, and he’s such a genius; he’d send the tracks back and I’d say things like “it just needs more balls” or ”it needs to glimmer a bit more”, and he’d know exactly what to do. Having those kinds of people around you, remote or not, who share your determination is really important.
I guess that’s quite a lot of trust to put in someone - it’s your work and you’re handing it over to someone and hoping they do the best job they can with it.
You’re right, it is a lot of trust, but I think it’s important to be clear with what you want. I coach a lot of young people, and I say things like “Don’t be scared to tell people how you think it should be”, especially if you want it to be different, but it’s scary doing something different! There were a lot of points where I could’ve made something more traditional, but I made choices with my gut - and working with some incredible people - to go further.
That goes quite nicely into the people you were playing with on the album. The trio of you, Ruth Goller and Moses Boyd have been playing together for quite a while - you’ve played on each other’s records before - was it an obvious choice, working with them?
I hand-picked both of them; when I was looking for a bass player I was considering a few different people, and I went to see Ruth playing with her band Let Spin - amazing, heavy, in-your-face band. Ruth really brings that power, but Let Spin also take you to some wild places you wouldn’t expect, then deliver you back home. When I saw Ruth play, I loved what she did, I love her sound. With her, she’s just one-hundred percent in the music, she’s in all the details, she’s such an expert musician.
And then with Moses, I played on two of his albums with Binker & Moses, but we’ve played together in many different capacities, so we understand the way we work very, very well. Moses brings a different quality because he’s quite free, and he doesn’t do what you expect, too. The song ‘Home’ on the album, for example, is quite an odd tune. The first section is in 11/8, then later on it goes into this section is ostensibly 4/4 but it bends, melds and moves. So it’s quite an usual tune, but Moses just wanted to play it over and over! But he didn’t just think about how he could sound impressive or clever on it, he just wanted to get under the music and absorb it. I think that’s probably the quality I love about him the most.
You mentioned before we started the interview that the track ‘Polar Retreat’ is also a really good example of the rapport you guys had in the studio - was that a special moment in the recording process for you?
Yeah, it’s one of the more subtle songs. The album starts with two quite in-your-face tracks - ‘Rivers of Mind’ and ‘Convolution’ - about the madness of the world and how you get to the other side. ‘Polar Retreat’ is a different comment on the world, zooming out and looking at these beautiful landscapes. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Iceland, but….
I haven’t, but I’d love to go.
Go, hundred percent, just go. It was inspired by a trip I took there; I was totally bowled over by the wild, barren landscapes. It’s really a reflection on that, and these places that are so precious now that we’re really at the risk of losing. It might seem quite obvious, but when you see those environments you just fall in love with it.
In the studio, though, we don’t talk much about things, but I wanted the beginning of that track to be an improvisation. For the first few minutes, I just said to everyone “think of snow and ice. Think of beautiful, blue skies, think about endless wilderness”. I remember this moment in our improvisation where I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, and you could jump, or you could step back - just feeling like you’re giving yourself over, and you’re there, completely fresh and alive. That was probably one of my favourite moments.
I can see why you mentioned it, then. Reading the liner notes for this album, you describe the title As We Stand as a reflection on where the planet and its people are going, particularly in regards to the environment, but it seems a little more positive than you’d expect, as though you have a more hopeful feeling for the future.
I’m an inherently positive person and a believer in human potential and the things that we can do that are extraordinary. But yeah, the situation is not great, and there are some things we’re realising now about the damage that’s being done to our oceans - for example, all the imagery of plastic pollution is devastating, but on the plus side people are seeing it. I think the first step to change that needs to happen is making people aware of what’s going on, and people are having that shift in consciousness. I’ve been passionate about conservation and environmental affairs since I was really young, and it wasn’t very cool when I was at school! Me and my friend would watch David Attenborough documentaries, and we were the geeks! But now, everyone loves Dave, obviously. What really inspires me right now is seeing all the young people getting involved; I was also on the climate marches in September 2019, and I was just speechless. It was so moving to see that many people taking ownership of our planet. You need to help people move forwards with hope and positivity, it doesn’t work if it’s all doom and gloom.
You have to show people the way.
Yeah, and we have to create different possibilities, things we don’t see right now. I mean, it used to be okay to smoke in public places, but things change, and see how quickly everyone adapted to COVID! How quickly we realised we can just work remotely, and how we can reduce our carbon footprint by not commuting. That human potential is what the title track is about, the gift of human communication we all have. Whichever way you do it, if you’re a writer, a poet, a speaker for an NGO, you have a voice and you can make a change.
Going back to music, something we didn’t bring up when talking about influences is Nigel Kennedy, who was quite a big deal for you early in your career.
Yeah, Nigel was probably my big break. He was my childhood hero, I’ve always loved him, he’s a right punk isn’t he! I love that about him, he’s not scared to break convention, and from working with him he’s so sincere. He’ll wear his Arsenal t-shirt to the Proms because it makes him feel great, and it’s what represents him! It was also through Nigel that I met Orphy Robinson, who’s been a key figure in my life ever since - we now run ‘Freedom: The Art of Improvisation’ together alongside Cleveland Watkiss and Paul Bradshaw.
The first part of our tour together was in Bulgaria, and there was us in the band, but we were playing with a classical orchestra. Nigel would go around the orchestra and call out random members, and ask if they wanted to take a solo. That kind of mentality of lifting people up is something I’ll always remember, and something I try to honour in my own career as I move forwards. Nigel’s played so many different styles - obviously his Vivaldi sold like a pop record - but he’s done jazz, Hendrix, all sorts. The way he presents what he does, he connects with so many different people, even different kinds of people to himself, and I really admire that about him.
It sounds like his sincerity is something that’s really important to you.
Yeah, it’s being authentic and true to what you are writing or performing. Whether you’re doing a speech or writing a piece of music, you should ask why it’s important to you, and why you’re doing it. I think that helps sharpen your performing and communication, whatever you do.