Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

January 14, 2019


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.

Helena Kay’s KIM Trio

“Moon Palace”

(Ubuntu Music UBU0018)

“Moon Palace” is the début album release by the young Perth born, London based saxophonist and composer Helena Kay.

Kay studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music, graduating in 2016. A frequent award winner she was voted Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year in 2015 and in 2017 was the winner of the prestigious Peter Whittingham Jazz Award. The latter, awarded by Help Musicians UK, helped to finance this début and the Whittingham Award, instigated in 1990, has also provided the launch pad for other successful jazz careers, including those of saxophonist Phil Meadows and bands such as Led Bib, Empirical. WorldService Project and Roller Trio.

Kay is a versatile musician who plays both alto and tenor saxophones plus clarinet. My only live sighting of her was as part of Issie Barratt’s all female Interchange dectet at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when she played alto and clarinet. She has also worked 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, trumpeter Ryan Quigley and saxophonists Tommy Smith, Stan Sulzmann and Paul Towndrow.

Others with whom she has collaborated include pianists Barry Green and Pete Johnstone, guitarist Nick Costley-White and vocalist Ben Cox.

Kay’s KIM Trio finds her specialising on tenor saxophone as she leads a group featuring drummer David Ingamells and bassist Ferg Ireland. Ingamells is a fellow Guildhall alumnus and introduced Kay to Ireland. The saxophonist says of her colleagues; “I love Dave’s swinging and playful playing, particularly in a trio setting. Ferg is a virtuoso on the bass, every time I play with him he pushes me to play better. Dave and Ferg make a great team.”

Initially inspired by the saxophone trios of Sonny Rollins the KIM Trio has also been influenced by more contemporary musicians such as the Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana and the organ led trio of Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart. Although not stated I’d surmise that trios led by Kay’s fellow saxophonists on the UK scene such as Duncan Eagles’ Partikel and Josephine Davies’ Satori may also have influenced her thinking.

The KIM trio’s repertoire includes pieces by composers such as Rollins and Antonio Carlos Jobim but “Moon Palace” puts the emphasis firmly on Kay’s original writing. Five of the seven tracks are written by the young saxophonist with the two outside items coming from the pens of Charlie Parker and Hoagy Carmichael.

Kay’s liner notes offer brief insights into the inspirations behind the individual tunes. Opener “L & D” is named after “two lovely cockerpoos I sometimes look after, Lilly and Dennis”. The piece finds the leader stretching out on tenor above the flexible, rolling grooves generated by Ireland and Ingamells. The Rollins influence is discernible but Kay also brings plenty of herself to the music and retains a strong melodic focus at all times. The performance includes an impressive solo from the impressive Ireland, an effective blend of power and great dexterity. There’s also an extended feature for the busy Ingamells, an increasingly in demand drummer on the UK scene. His crisp cymbal work is a distinctive element throughout this energetic, boppish opening piece.

“Felijao”, a Portuguese word meaning “beans”, takes its title from the twin inspirations of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Kay’s recent conversion to a vegetarian diet. This is a gently brooding, more reflective piece that demonstrates Kay’s ability to play convincingly at slower tempos. Her interplay with Ireland’s languidly resonant bass is particularly impressive, their dialogue underscored by Ingamells’ economic and sensitive brush work. Again there’s another extended solo from the bassist, one that offers evidence of his strong melodic sense. Ingamells picks up his sticks as the tune gathers momentum and Kay stretches out once more. There’s a hint of the sounds of Brazil in the melody, but this is still very much a contemporary jazz performance.

Given the name of this trio the decision to cover Charlie Parker’s “Kim” represents a particularly apposite choice. However as far as I can ascertain the KIM Trio wasn’t named for Parker’s tune, but because its original bassist was Misha Mullov-Abbado. Parker’s tune was written for his then young daughter and the piece gives Kay the opportunity to flex her bop chops on a vigorous rendition powered by Ingamells’ military style drumming. Kay names Parker as one of her favourite saxophonists and it’s interesting to hear her tackle this bop classic on remarkably agile tenor. Ingamells is whip smart behind the kit and his dialogue with the leader is particularly engrossing.

“Strawberry Terrace” is named after Kay’s old street in the London district of Muswell Hill and finds the saxophonist improvising around an attractive melody and a rolling groove centred on Ingamells’ toms. Ireland adds a typically dexterous double bass solo.

Another tune named after an address is “Perry Street”, a composition honouring the street in Greenwich Village in which Kay stayed during her first ever visit to New York City. “I heard a lot of music while I was there; it’s an incredibly inspiring place to be” the saxophonist explains. She continues; “I love the Larry Goldings / Peter Bernstein / Bill Stewart Trio, some of the tunes they play encapsulate a gritty, American sound, and I wanted to capture that attitude in my own tune”.
Musically the piece is a blues paced by the slow swagger of Ireland’s bass walk and featuring teasing stop/go episodes. Kay’s tenor is smoky and bluesy giving the tune an authentic after hours feel. Ireland also features with an articulate double bass solo on a piece that also has something of a Charles Mingus atmosphere about it. 

The title track is named after the novel “Moon Palace” by the author Paul Auster, one of Kay’s favourite writers. It begins with a nod to the ‘spiritual jazz’ style of John Coltrane but subsequently explores further afield with Kay maintaining a strong melodic focus and duetting delightfully with Ireland mid-tune. The bassist then enjoys his own feature, this taking the form of an equally absorbing dialogue with Ingamells.

The album concludes with Kay’s beautifully controlled and moderated solo rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. It’s an astonishingly mature and fluent performance that is totally convincing and captivating. Kay’s performance was inspired by Nat King Cole’s version of the song, which had also been a favourite of her grandfather.

“Moon Palace” represents an impressive début offering from Kay, and a brave one too. 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. She proves herself to be a fluent improviser and a capable composer who places the emphasis on melody, but not at the expense of improvisational content. There’s no sense of grandstanding but her playing is excellent throughout and her rapport with Ireland and Ingamells sounds natural and well balanced. All three musicians impress individually but they also impress as a strikingly mature and accomplished unit. Despite the apparent sparseness of the instrumentation this is an album that reveals more with each subsequent listening.

“Moon Palace” has attracted considerable critical approval and is a very good album, but one suspects that there may be even better things to come from Helena Kay’s KIM Trio.

blog comments powered by Disqus