REVIEW: Tori Handsley Trio + Pixel at the Spice of Life (2017 EFG LJF)

Tori Handsley
Photo credit Paul Ottavio - pottavio@gmail.com<. All Rights Reserved

Tori Handsley Trio + Pixel

Spice of Life, 10 November, EFG LJF 2017. Review by Rob Mallows)

Another London Jazz Festival is underway, and the Spice of Life in Soho was packed on day one for this double bill of young bands carving singular paths through the jazz landscape.

The Tori Handsley Trio of Tori Handsley (unsurprisingly) on harp, Ruth Goller on electric bass and David DeRose (standing in for usual trio drummer Moses Boyd) won over the crowd right from their first track, Life Has Its Trials, one of two arrangements of Dorothy Ashby tracks. In the Venn diagram of jazz musicians, Tori Handsley is in a very exclusive, tiny circle reserved for jazz harpists, but thrives in the space this offers.

Handling what is in effect a piano on its side with real aplomb, Handsley’s playing challenges your preconceptions of what a harp sounds like (forget what you’ve ever heard at a wedding). Her composition What’s In A Tune? was, she warned the audience, very, very catchy. What is it the Germans call it: an Ohrwurm (ear worm)? Damn. It is one catchy five-minute cavalcade and a testament to the creativity of the composer. As I write this, the riff’s still there.

Handsley doesn’t so much play as manhandle the harp. Furiously pressing the pitch pedals like a church organist in a hurry to get to the pub, she created groove, chest-thumping power and exciting flourishes from this most grandiose of instruments.

Particularly appealing was Goller’s tone on the electric bass which was spiky and fresh. Standing between drums and harp, her playing provided the rhythmic sparks that propelled the music along. Plectrum poised delicately in her lips and shifted side to side like a baseball player swizzling a toothpick, she looked every inch the major league jazz slugger, hitting each tune successfully out of the park.

It was a short but pleasingly punchy set, and Handsley’s mention of a forthcoming album can only be good news, based on this showing.

Ellen Andrea Wang and Harald Lassen of Pixel
Photo credit Paul Ottavio - pottavio@gmail.com. All Rights Reserved

Spice of Life favourites Pixel, from Norway, also delivered full value at what is a poignant juncture for the band: after the festival, founding sax player Harald Lassen leaves the band to focus on his own quartet, Lassen. As he told this reviewer, since announcing his departure to his bandmates, their playing has only gotten richer and more creative, as if they’re aiming to capture something special for posterity before they part. This gig demonstrated why.

Replete with fan favourites from across their three albums - such as Be Mine, Our Beauty and the hard beats of Sigma - the three other Pixels - Ellen Andrea Wang on vocals and bass, Jon Auden Baar on drums and sans shoes, and trumpeter Jonas Kilmork Vemøy - along with Lassen demonstrated why they’re the successful Euro-pop-indie-jazz pioneers they currently are.

Wang - clearly on a creative high following the positive critical success from her own recently published second solo album Blank Out - can both mesmerise with her spiky, kick-butt bass playing and enchant with her 24-carat, impurity free voice, which is a USP for the band. But it is Vemøy, however, who is the band’s secret spice; his effects- and echo-heavy trumpeting brought a swirling, liquid quality to slower tunes like Farris and Slinky.

Spice Jazz's Paul Pace has been a champion of Pixel since the beginning. His steadfast support of the band - and, indeed of the Tori Handsley Trio - shows he’s got an eye for winners and crowd pleasers. Nights like this, with the Spice of Life packed to the gunwales, must provide great satisfaction for one of London’s tireless jazz crusaders.

A super night of exciting, no-safety-net jazz which set a high standard for the rest of the festival to follow.

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