Sax star Helena Kay joins East Neuk’s eclectic jazz and folk strand

The Perth-raised saxophonist and former Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year will be appearing with their KIM Trio, writes Jim Gilchrist

Helena Kay
Helena Kay

Helena Kay’s 2018 debut trio album Moon Palace was inspired by a novel by renowned New York chronicler Paul Auster, while the title track of the second, Golden Sands, due for release in September, was inspired by a song their grandmother used to sing. Add musical influences such as Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and Bobby Wellins, and it’s clear that the Perth-raised, London-based saxophonist’s music is cosmopolitan, to say the least – and it can be heard, with their KIM Trio, amid the centuries-old precincts of Anstruther’s Dreel Hall on 1 July, as part of the ever-eclectic East Neuk Festival.

At 28, Kay cuts a slight figure blowing big tenor sax in a warm-toned, clean, uncluttered style, and was recently involved in some rich dialogue between sax and strings in violinist-band-leader Seonaid Aitken’s newly released and beguiling jazz-classical-folk distillation, Chasing Sakura.

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“I always try and play and write melodically,” says Kay. “I think that’s really important. I want to communicate with the audience and the other musicians in the band.”

Kay recorded Golden Sands a couple of months ago with their established trio of drummer David Ingamellis and bassist Calum Gourlay – plus guest pianist Pete Johnstone. Johnstone isn’t available for the East Neuk gig, so the guest spot will be taken by another collaborator of Kay’s, vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield, which should ensure some memorable reed and percussion timbres.

There’s an ongoing Crowdfunding campaign for the new album (which can be accessed at At present, Kay reckons, “We’re halfway there.”

Growing up in Perth – where, as a teenager, they saw the late, great Bobby Wellins perform and played with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s Jazz Orchestra – Kay left in 2012 to attend London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and stayed there, barring a spell in New York. Having played alto sax for several years, they switched to tenor during third year at the Guildhall after hearing the great Sonny Rollins.

Kay was Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year in 2015 and two years later scooped a Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, which enabled them to record and release Moon Palace, to enthusiastic critical acclaim. Apart from the KIM Trio, Kay also plays in bassist Gourlay’s own quartet and big band, and within the ranks of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Later in June they’ll be playing with trumpeter Ryan Quigley’s Big Band during Glasgow Jazz Festival, while July sees them at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival alongside fellow saxophonist Laura MacDonald and in bassist Emma Smith’s celebration of the hugely influential Charles Mingus, whose centenary falls this year.

Kay is just one of numerous artists of note headlining the jazz, folk and world music strand of the East Neuk Festival, which sees stellar classical and other musicians perform in some of this picturesque corner of Fife’s venerable kirks and halls. Among them is Syrian-born Rihab Azar, one of a growing number of female players of the oud, the Middle-Eastern fretless lute, who appears with her trio and with folk musician Luke Daniels. Arabic music was a major influence in the development of flamenco, which is represented at the festival by virtuoso guitarist Daniel Martinez and his ensemble.

Influences from the Middle East and beyond permeate the music of cellist Shirley Smart, who appears in her trio with pianist John Crawford and drummer Demi Garcia Sabat, while further cross-cultural collaboration sees Newcastle singer and fiddler Frankie Archer join Kenyan multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno.

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Festival favourite clarinettist Julian Bliss returns with his septet and a programme of music from the movies. Speaking of which, the inimitable Neil Brand, “doyen of film pianists”, leads the festival’s cinema strand, among other things playing for a Buster Keaton screening and joining the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Tullis Russell Mills Band and others in the festival’s intriguing-sounding celebration of the weather, Thunderplump.

The East Neuk Festival runs from 29 June until 3 July,