Saxophonist Helena Kay went to New York in February 2019 and came back in March 2020. Her forthcoming album Golden Sands draws inspiration from her time there. A crowdfunder for the new album is under way (LINK BELOW). Interview by Sebastian.
LondonJazz News: A year in New York feels like a relatively short time. Would you like to have spent longer there?
Helena Kay: Yes. I went to NY on an artist visa which lasts for three years, so my original plan was to stay for three years. The pandemic brought me back to the UK after one year on the visa. I was going to say ‘sadly’ it brought be back, but actually I’m really happy to be here playing music, catching up with friends and spending time with my family. The beginning of the pandemic was a really awful time but there were some silver linings, like spending time with my family.
LJN: What had been your main idea in going??
HK: I wanted to absorb the American attitude and culture of the music over there. I love American music, black American music especially, and I had visited NYC a couple of times before I decided to move there. There is such a strong connection to the history. I also wanted to have some lessons with some of my favorite musicians in the world and hear incredible music regularly, which I did!
LJN: What did your face-to-face lessons bring you?
HK: I had lessons with Melissa Aldana, Chris Cheek and Dayna Stephens when I was in New York. I first met Melissa in Edinburgh years ago, and I’ve had some lessons with her in the UK when she’s touring. She’s a huge inspiration to me and a very lovely and generous person. I could say the same for all of these musicians, they are very different but they share warmth and generosity. Melissa took me through her rigorous practice routine, Chris got me singing and going back to basics, and Dayna had me exploring some harmonic avenues, amongst other things. They all know the foundations of music so well, that’s one of the main takeaways, and they each have their own unique approach. It was amazing to spend time with them and get to know them, as well as hear them play.
I also worked for Rodney Green for a while, he taught me a lot too, about music and life. He’s a very thoughtful and innovative musician and teacher. (INTERVIEW)
LJN: Were there other aspects of the NY experience that have left their mark on your music?
HK: I’d say the whole experience of living in NY left a huge mark on me as a person, so in turn will have affected my music. It doesn’t feel entirely tangible or describable, I just know I’m a different person having lived there. I’d like to think my experiences have made me tougher and bolder, and so I hope my music/my playing is bolder because of that.
LJN: There must be a story behind the title of the track ‘Tuesday Club’
HK: My good friend and photographer John Rogers helped me a lot when I moved to NYC. He was working at the Village Vanguard at the time, and used to attend a show there on his night off every Tuesday, and he’d invite me along too, along with his friend Amy Lemaire (who is an incredible artist – glassblower). We heard so much amazing music, and met living legends of the music. We’d stay after the show with other staff and often the musicians too. I can’t quite believe that was my life for a while! It was an incredible time.
LJN: And you admire Carla Bley….
HK: One of the tracks on the upcoming album is called Carla after the great Carla Bley. I love her writing.
LJN: Now you are back and there is a real “thing” about Scottish Jazz going on, notably with Fergus McCreadie and Matt Carmicael. What do you think about that ? Are you a part of it?
HK: I feel very lucky to part of the scene here in London and also have regular opportunities to perform up in Scotland. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily part of the scene up there, I think being part of a scene involves going to gigs as well as playing them, and contributing in other ways, making things happen. There’s a very vibrant scene up in Scotland led by incredible musicians who I’m proud to call my friends, and I’m lucky to take part from time to time. It always feels like coming home when I play there. As I get older I feel the connection to that country get stronger, especially after living away from the UK, your nationality becomes a big part of your identity.
I’ve known Fergus for a long time (we were both in FYJO together, I think he was about 12 when we met), and I’m really excited to see what he does next. Same with Matt Carmichael – he blows me away every time I hear him. I was reflecting on this after recording a big band album with my good friend Sean Gibbs (another Scot); it’s really exciting getting older and seeing your friends (as well as yourself) develop and do amazing things. I’ll just mention a few others while we’re at it – Anoushka Nanguy, Liam Shortall, Paul Towndrow, Alan Benzie (& many more!)
LJN: Is London home now or Scotland?
HK: I live in London, Harringay to be precise, and I love this area of London. I’m up in Scotland so regularly it feels like home too. I’m very lucky to be in this position.
LJN: Who are the musicians on the new album ?
HK: I have a great band, I’m grateful to be able to play and hang out with these people. David Ingamells has been in the band from the beginning, we first met at Guildhall. He pushes me to do better each time I play with him. He’s got a good sense of humour too. I’ve known Calum Gourlay since before I moved to London, he’s from Fife and we both had similar musical upbringings (Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, NYJOS, Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra). He is the glue holding us all together, and he plays the bass beautifully. I decided for this album to expand from trio to quartet because some of my newer compositions require a chordal instrument. Scottish pianist Peter Johnstone and I started playing duo together in 2017, we’ve had some lovely gigs, some of my favorite ever, and I love the way he interprets my music. He is also a ball of positive energy and a pleasure to work with.
LJN: Your last album was with KIM Trio… is this a quartet… or what?
HK: I’m sticking with the name KIM Trio, because this album feels like a continuation of my first album Moon Palace, and also because I’d like to continue with the KIM Trio + special guest format. Vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield will be joining us for a couple of gigs in July, East Neuk Festival on 1st July, and The Oxford in Kentish Town on the 11th.
LJN: What’s the crowdfunder for?
HK: City Music Foundation Help me set up a crowdfunder to cover the costs of all the stuff that turns a recording into an album – mixing, mastering, artwork, design, video, printing, PR. I was able to cover the costs of the recording session myself, but now need help with the next steps, to make the music into an album that can go out into the world. We’re aiming to raise £4,000 by 1 July.
Sebastian Scotney is a member of the Advisory Board of the City Music Foundation
Biography on Helena Kay’s website
Interview for #IWD2020 with Alex Hitchcock
City Music Foundation – artist page