Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

June 15, 2023


Kay’s writing is intelligent and varied & both her composing & playing combine old school jazz virtues with a very contemporary outlook. The album also features the playing of pianist Peter Johnstone.

Helena Kay’s Kim Trio & Peter Johnstone

“Golden Sands”

(Sulis Records SUL001)

Helena Kay – tenor saxophone, Calum Gourlay – double bass, David Ingamells – drums, Peter Johnstone – piano

A rather belated look at this second album release as a leader by the Scottish saxophonist and composer Helena Kay. The album was first released in October 2022 but found its way to me some months later, although I have to admit that it’s also been lurking in the ‘to do’ file for rather too long.

Kay’s début, “Moon Palace” was released in 2019 and was a genuine ‘saxophone trio’ recording featuring Kay specialising on tenor sax (she also plays alto and clarinet) in the company of bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer Dave Ingamells. The Jazzmann commented at the time;
“It represents a bold move to choose the challenging format of the saxophone trio for a first recording, but Kay carries it off with considerable aplomb”.
The full review can be read here;

“Golden Sands” is still credited to Helena Kay’s KIM Trio but sees Kay and Ingamells joined by new bassist Calum Gourlay and also by pianist Peter Johnstone. The Trio name has been retained to emphasise the continuity from the first album. Another significant change is that the focus is now exclusively on Kay’s original compositions. “Moon Palace” also featured pieces by Charlie Parker and Hoagy Carmichael and the trio have also covered items by Sonny Rollins and Antonio Carlos Jobim in the past.

Although born in Perth Kay began her musical career with the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra and in 2015 was the winner of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition.  In 2017 she was the winner of the prestigious Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, awarded by Help Musicians UK, which helped to finance the “Moon Palace” recording.

Kay studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music, graduating in 2016, and she has also spent time living and studying in New York, a city with which she retains strong links. During her time in New York she studied with saxophonists Melissa Aldana, Dayna Stephens and Chris Cheek

She has worked frequently with large ensembles such as the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (including their collaborations with guest soloists vibraphonist Joe Locke and bassist Arild Andersen) and with the big bands led by bassist Calum Gourlay, trumpeters Ryan Quigley and Sean Gibbs and saxophonists Tommy Smith, Stan Sulzmann and Paul Towndrow.

 Kay was part of Issie Barratt’s all female Interchange dectet at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival,  playing alto sax and clarinet on that occasion. She also plays alto on trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s acclaimed 2019 album “Polyhymnia”.

She appears on tenor on Gourlay’s excellent 2019 album “New Ears”, recorded by a chordless quartet also featuring trombonist Kieran McLeod and drummer James Maddren. Review here;

Others with whom she has collaborated include pianists Barry Green, Sam Watts and Pete Johnstone, guitarist Nick Costley-White, trombonist Rory Ingham, cellist Juliette Lemoine and vocalist Ben Cox.

Of Johnstone’s addition to the band Kay comments;
“Pete and I seem to have been either in the same band or pursuing the same goals forever. He won the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title three years ahead of me. Then we played in the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra at the same time. Now he’s in my band, which is really a quartet rather than a trio, and we’re both also playing with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.”
The pair have also performed concerts as a duo.

“Golden Sands” was jointly financed by the City Music Foundation and by a crowdfunding campaign. As on the début Kay supplies brief liner notes  offering concise insights into the inspirations behind the individual tunes. The pieces are variously inspired by Scotland, London and New York and by life itself.

The album commences with “Amor y Amargo”, the title translating as “Love and Bitter”. It also happens to be the name of a cocktail bar that Kay used to frequent in New York’s East Village. As might be expected from this group of old friends there’s a relaxed, conversational feel to the music, which embraces a broadly mainstream sound with Kay’s warm and fluent tenor soloing supported by the easy swing of piano, double bass and brushed drums. Johnstone is a hugely talented pianist who really deserves to be better known. He follows Kay with a joyous solo and there is also a feature for Gourlay’s melodic double bass.

It’s back to the UK for “Xian Impressions”, named for an institution that Kay describes as a “great noodle place in north London”. This has a quirky, more contemporary post bop sound incorporating odd meter rhythms and at nearly ten minutes duration it allows both Kay and Johnstone to stretch out expansively, with each delivering thrilling, exploratory solos. Drummer Ingamells, an increasingly busy and in demand presence on the UK jazz scene, is also featured.

“Towards The Sun” (“light always comes after dark”, remarks Kay) has more of a ballad feel and is another lengthy track with a near ten minute running time. The piece has something of an episodic quality as it progresses through lyrical solos from Kay and Johnstone, both sympathetically supported by Gourlay and Ingamells.

The brief, impressionistic “Carla” is Kay’s tribute to the great pianist and composer Carla Bley. The composer’s sax melody line snakes thoughtfully above a rolling bass and drum accompaniment. At the piano Johnstone provides a melodic counterpoint, his playing sometimes coming to the fore.

Ingamells’ cymbals introduce “Da Dratsie”, the title coming from the Shetland dialect word for ‘otter’. Kay has family in Shetland and I think I’m correct in believing that this tune is dedicated to her grandmother. There’s a warm, playful quality about this piece, representative perhaps of the creature in question, but also celebrating place and family. Kay and Johnstone deliver fluent and authoritative solos, as does the excellent Gourlay on double bass.

“Tuesday Club” is dedicated to two of Kay’s friends in New York, with whom she used go to the city’s celebrated Village Vanguard jazz club every Tuesday evening. It’s a celebration of a different kind, with the music’s stop start patterns giving it a sense of urban urgency. Sonny Rollins has been huge influence on Kay and at one point Johnstone drops out and she delivers a fluent but powerful solo in the classic saxophone trio format, with Gourlay and Ingamells adding energetic support. Ingamells is then left on his own to deliver a colourful drum solo.

“20/20”, dedicated to the concept of “hindsight”, commences in an impressionistic manner reminiscent of the earlier “Carla”,  with sax and piano melody lines floating above Gourlay’s bass pulse and the shimmer of Ingamells’ cymbals. The piece then takes on a more conventional structure that allows for more expansive solos from Kay and Johnstone. Both musicians explore fluently and intelligently and there’s a wistful quality about Kay’s tone that befits the title.

There’s a nostalgic feel about the title track, which takes its name from a lullaby that Kay’s mother used to sing - “as I lay on the golden sands”. Kay’s sound has a suitably burnished quality on this evocative ballad, while Johnstone’s solo exhibits a gentle lyricism.

“Double 7”, which was released as a single and which Kay dedicates to “all you darts fans”, is presented as a bonus track. Introduced by Gourlay at the bass it has a bluesy, old school feel about it and acts as the vehicle for solos from Gourlay, Kay and Johnstone. One can just imagine oneself in a New York jazz club (or a London one for that matter) listening to this.

“Golden Sands” represents an excellent follow up to the well received “Moon Palace” and has been accorded with similar critical acclaim. Johnstone is the perfect addition to the group and as an old friend settles in perfectly with the core trio.

Kay’s writing is intelligent and varied and both her composing and playing combine old school jazz virtues with a very contemporary outlook. As a result her music sounds fresh and of the moment, despite the retro trimmings. Kay prefers a pure saxophone sound, no effects pedals or electronics, and her tone is gorgeous throughout, although not indebted to anybody in particular. She has clearly found her own voice on the instrument.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Kay performing in other people’s bands, among them Issie Barratt’s Interchange and Rory Ingham’s Sextet and her duo with pianist Sam Watts.  Nevertheless I’d love to see a performance from this quartet, or from the core KIM Trio. Hopefully that opportunity will come in the not too distant future.

blog comments powered by Disqus