Saturday, April 28, 2012

Liner Notes for Dexterritory Album

Sweet tenor lifting/All American sorrows/Raises mouthpiece to mouth/And blows to finger” – Jack Kerouac

My first encounter with "Dexterritory" was in the cellar of Oliver’s, a tiny and atmospheric music club in Greenwich, London. There, I was introduced to a quartet which was entirely dedicated to performing the music of Dexter Gordon (1923-1990).

The leader and tenor player, a stubborn Irish musician, is Kevin McMahon who plays his hot and cool music on this record. This set is the first documented stop on their long journey to rediscover Dexter Gordon, not only as a giant tenorman, and surely a gentle one, but as a composer. Dexter’s pen, as well as his playing, reflects a powerful swinging and highly rhythmic mind that in spite of its speed and robust attack, remains tender and even divine.

Kevin McMahon (born 1970) is from Dublin. He bought Dexter’s Ballads album when he was twenty-two and listening to it one afternoon, he felt that he had found what he was looking for. “His Importance is gigantic, a tenor bridge between the swing and bop players of his generation,” says Mac Mahon, as he mentions Dexter’s contribution to hard swinging Bop, and also the man’s coolness and mannerism.

If in Dexter Gordon’s saxophone the inner conflict between the more classical and Lester Young-ish approach with a modern and Coltranian sound resolved to produce a bristling and edgy sound in between, here Kevin manages to accomplish the same effect.

Having heard this quartet live a couple of times, I must say, in their live gigs they sound rougher and delightfully untrimmed, but on the record the staccato playing of McMahon’s live gigs is substituted with a fluent and beautiful sound which definitely pleases more ears. There is a constant exciting pressure behind his solos that is fully supported by his all-British rhythm section.

Steve Ashworth, pianist, is from Manchester (born 1967) and started his musical career in his birth place, before moving to London and studying at the Guildhall School of Music, in the early nineties. He sounds like an amalgam of Horace Parlan and Kenny Drew, all redirected in a more personal way.

Bassist Shura Greenberg (born 1971), who speaks music, plays music and thinks music, is from the north area of London and lucky enough to have played chess with Ronnie Scott at his legendary jazz club. His father was working for Ronnie and Shura himself was in charge of transporting heavyweights of jazz like Elvin Jones when they were in town. Interestingly that was the club where Dexter appeared in the 1960s on his first stop and began his long love affair with Europe.
Shura was exposed to the vibrant jazz scene of the city in its good years, and by entering the Guildhall School, he shaped what he had already learned by ear, in a more academic way. Passionately listening and “working” on Ray Brown, Larry Gales, Reggie Workman and Paul Chambers, he shows what he has learned from these past masters: keeping the pulse of the quartet and making it work like a hand-made watch from 19th century which still functions flawlessly.

Another product of Manchester is the drummer, Matt Fishwick (born 1976) who was playing his first professional gigs while still in his early teens. Graduated from Royal Academy of Music in London, he managed to play with eminent visitors such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache. After a 5 year stay in New York City and working with big names of jazz such as Frank Wess, Bob Cranshaw, Cedar Walton, Anita O'Day, and Earl May, he returned home to lead his own combo.

And now the Dexterritory album:
The opening piece is Soy Califa from A Swingin Affair (August 29, 1962), a jubilant manifestation of Dexter’s ability as a great writer, executed neatly by McMahon and Ashworth. McMahon’s sound here, reminds us of the later recordings of Sonny Rollins, and he is heard shouting “I am the caliph” [a religious king in Islamic culture].

It's You Or No One, from Doin' Alright (May 6, 1961) explodes with a huge wave of sound that resembles a free jazz quartet at its full force, but soon the rhythm section relaxes and allows Kevin to swing on its hard-driving beat.

Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, from the classic Go! (August 27, 1962) slows down the pace and gives us the chance to hear what Dex was so good at: soulful ballads. Was Kevin thinking of that afternoon in Dublin with Ballads when he was playing this?

Steve Ashworth once told me of his admiration for Cedar Walton and his playing on Devilette from Clubhouse (May 27, 1965) shows the same circular pattern and rhythmic drive as his mentor Cedar. Ira Gitler describes this tune as “a mixture of a ‘soul’ feeling with a modal mood,” which is perfectly executed by the band.

Le Coiffeur from Getting Around (May 28, 1965), as its title suggests, feels playfully French, and presents a very engaging solo by Ashworth. “I have a particular appreciation of bass players who enjoy expressing themselves within the rhythm section rather than front line soloists,” says Greenberg and here one can feel how much he has committed himself to the aim of delivering a flawless rhythmic stability to the performer in the front line.

Kong Neptune from One Flight Up (June 2, 1964) is so close to the spirit of Dex that one can mistake its ascending sax solo for a work by Dex, in a Danish or Parisian jazz club.

Ernie's Tune from Dexter Calling (May 9, 1961) demonstrates how McMahon has absorbed “everything” in Dexter’s music, including his lovable behind-the-beat phrasing which produces a relaxed, lush sound. Ashworth with his crisp outing demonstrates his absolute confidence and feeling at home.

In Tivoli (from Other Side of Round Midnight, late February, 1975) the rhythm section is doing its job as smoothly as a river in Oxford and I must confess that McMahan on soprano sax sounds more impressive than his idol, Dexter Gordon. McMahan’s sax also shows the tenderness and the pure lyricism of John Coltrane’s early 1960s hits on the instrument.

Coppin’ the Haven, again from Clubhouse, has McMahon soloing against a shifting rhythmic backdrop. Matt Fishwick is outstanding in responding to solos by McMahon and Ashworth.

Cheesecake (from Go!) opens with a walking bass of Greenberg and Ashworth doing some Bud-Powell-like phrasing that perfectly allows McMahon to float on it and make choruses one after another. An impressive finale.

This collection of songs written by legendary saxophone player Dexter Gordon and the tightly energetic and unfailingly lyrical performance by Kevin McMahon Quartet is an outright homage to one of the greatest and, to some degree, still underrated jazz musicians of the 20th century. It’s a neo-classic album, filled with sophistication and elegance.

Dizzy Gillespie once said about Dexter Gordon that “he did everything wrong and it all turned out right. He should have left his karma to science.” I think some of his “karma” is preserved by Kevin McMahon and his friends. Dexterritory is a piece of evidence for that!


  1. Very interesting! And well put...

  2. When is this CD coming out?

    1. It's already "out". Please check their FB page or send them your Q directly there: