Saxophonist Helena Kay grew up in Perth in Scotland, studied in London from 2012 to 2016, and is currently based in New York. She has been Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, won a Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, and recorded a debut album Moon Palace for Ubuntu, which was listed among the Downbeat Best Albums of 2019. In this interview for International Women’s Day 2020 by Alex Hitchcock, she talks about… Sonny Rollins, her recent UK tour, her current life in New York, and a new New York-based trio with bassist Kaisa Mäensivu, originally from Hämeenlinna in Finland on bass, and Angus Mason, from Adelaide in South Australia on drums:
LondonJazz News: Why did you choose the sax trio for your debut recording Moon Palace? What about that sound and lineage are you particularly drawn to?
Helena Kay: Pretty much because of Sonny Rollins and his trio records from the 50s, but I also had experience playing trio in different settings with various friends/colleagues, and I always enjoyed it. Dave Ingamells set up a trio session at Guildhall with Misha Mullov-Abbado and it felt great, so I wanted that to be my band at the time. I started writing music for it and the trio thing just stuck. Also from a practical point of view, it’s much easier managing a smaller band, and I want to spend more time playing the saxophone than being in front of a laptop agonising over Sibelius parts – with a trio the compositions are more vehicles for improvisation than a larger group which might need more arranging.
LJN: There’s a great recent interview with Sonny Rollins where he gives some amazing insights into his life and career. What is it about his approach to music, and to life in general, that has been inspiring for you?
HK: To me his music is joyful. He’s so bold, he sounds like he isn’t scared of anything. I’m still surprised that someone whose playing is so strong and self-assured would feel as though he had to take so many lengthy sabbaticals. He’s so dedicated to the music – I read another interview where he said he couldn’t play anymore but still fingers his horn. He said he’d like to be remembered as someone who was always trying to get better, and that he’s always trying to be a nice person and live by the rule ‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’. That’s inspiring.
LJN: Your first tour as a leader took in 12 dates around the UK – what did the music gain from being played lots over a shorter period of time?
HK: It was great being able to play with the same musicians over 12 dates, I hadn’t really done that much before, sadly doing that kind of thing is much rarer than it used to be. It felt like we had to change things around to keep it fresh, which was a new challenge. The music definitely evolved more quickly, the newer compositions settled more quickly, and we could get into being more creative with them, which was exciting. I found myself changing the set list around each night and doing different standards among the originals to keep it fresh. I was very lucky to have David Ingamells and Ferg Ireland on every date of the tour, they’re busy guys and I’m really happy they were able to fit it around their schedules.
LJN: Ubuntu has been pretty prolific over the past few years, has it been helpful working with a label that is proving itself to be both eclectic and forward-thinking?
HK: Yes, Martin Hummel is great! He’s passionate about the music, and he helped me so much with the whole process (he still is), and I needed a lot of help because it was my first album. Without him I would never have gotten the 4* Downbeat review, or be on the Downbeat Best Albums of 2019 list, or a whole list of other things that he did for me. Thanks, Martin!
LJN: Any plans for another record?
HK: Yes! I need to figure out how to do it as the last one was funded by the Peter Whittingham Award. I’ve been writing a load of new tunes and playing them with a new trio in New York – Kaisa Mäensivu on bass and Angus Mason on drums, who sound great, so I’d really like to record with them.
LJN: You were one of 25 musicians who recorded on Yazz Ahmed’s record Polyhymnia, how was it working with a much larger group in quite a different musical style?
HK: That was a very interesting record to work on – Yazz actually recorded a lot of the tracks separately. I went round to her studio and recorded my part on my own, it was just Yazz, Noel Langley and myself in the room. At that point the rhythm section and some other horn parts were recorded so I had something to listen to and fit in with. I had never recorded like that before – I practised the music at home, came in and read it through and was done in a few hours. You can’t tell that it was recorded like that when you listen to the album. I was excited to hear what it would sound like when the record came out.
LJN: What other groups are you playing in that you’re excited about?
HK: I did a lot of recording last year, with Paul Towndrow’s Keywork Orchestra, Issie Barratt’s Interchange Dectet, Yazz Ahmed, and the Calum Gourlay Quartet. I’ve known Calum for a long time, I first met him when I was a student at Richard Michael’s Summer School, where Calum was teaching. Calum and I were both in Richard’s Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra (though not at the same time). Growing up in Scotland, I knew about Calum and had heard him play a few times. My fourteen-year-old self would never have believed I’d be on his quartet album! I love playing with Calum, he’s played in my bands a lot over the years, and it was an honour to be asked to be on his record and to do the album release tour at the end of last year. We did ten dates around England, Scotland and Wales. I love his music and playing with Kieran McLeod and James Maddren (two other musicians who I’ve looked up to for a long time) for a run of dates was amazing. I hope to do more with that band!
LJN: How did you find moving to New York? What are the differences between the jazz scene there and in London, where you lived previously? Will you stay there long-term?
HK: It wasn’t easy. I’ve given up a lot to be in New York, and I’m starting all over again, with work, social circle etc. It’s an incredible place to be though, I’m learning a lot. The New York scene is just bigger, there’s so much going on all the time, and so many musicians from all over the world come to live here and be part of the scene. The attitude in New York is different to London as well, which is one of the reasons I moved there, to try to absorb the American attitude, which I think is so necessary for playing this music, and which doesn’t come naturally to me being a Brit! There’s so much history in New York too, you can still feel it, that’s where the music that I love came from, and is still evolving there today. It’s very inspiring. I would like to stay there for a while, though it depends on whether I can get another visa. My current one lasts for three years and expires in 2022. Three years doesn’t feel like long enough to get settled, so I’d really like to be there for six years and see how I feel after that.
LJN: How important is Scottish identity to you, whether living in London or New York?
HK: I think for a lot of Scots the Scottish identity is important. I didn’t used to be so into that because I never really thought about it when I was living in Scotland, and when I was living in London home wasn’t so far away and I was up in Scotland a lot playing. Now that I’m so far from home (home being Scotland and London where most of my friends are), it seems to be a much more important part of my identity. ‘Where are you from?’ is often the first question you’re asked, as there are so many people in New York who moved there from other places (I hardly ever meet true New Yorkers). I do feel excited when I hear a Scottish or British accent, and it’s really grounding having people from the same country as you around.