Born: October 28, 1945 | Died: February 8, 2006 Primary Instrument: Saxophone
Elton Dean, who died at 60 on February 8th 2006, was a totally unique musician : at times lyrical and moving, at others explosive and unsettling, his approach of saxophone playing was totally his own, besides the fact that he favoured a little-used member of the sax family : the saxello, an hybrid between alto and soprano, with an instantly recognizable sound. Over the years, Dean lent his immense talents to bands like Soft Machine, Soft Heap, In Cahoots and L'Equip'Out, as well as many jazz ensembles featuring Keith Tippett, Hugh Hopper, Pip Pyle, Mark Hewins and John Etheridge.
Elton Dean was born in Nottingham in 1945. He started taking piano and violin lessons at a very early age, and bought his first saxophone when he reached 18. At that point, he'd become interested in jazz listening to the radio and records, particularly traditional English jazz, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, etc. By the mid-60's, Dean had started playing in London pubs, and became a professional musician. In 1966-67, he played alongside trumpet player Mark Charig in Long John Baldry's band Bluesology (whose piano player borrowed his and Baldry's first names to start a career as pop singer under the name Elton John), Georgie Fame's Blue Flames and Marsha Hunt's backing band. Late in 1967, Dean and Charig met pianist Keith Tippett and trombone player Nick Evans, thus the formation of the Keith Tippett Sextet, which played in various clubs in 1968-69 and recorded two albums for the Vertigo label.
In the Autumn of 1969, Tippett's brass section of Dean, Evans and Charig was absorbed into Soft Machine. While the latter two left after only a couple of months, Dean soldiered on, and for two years was part of the band's most vividly remembered line-up, alongside Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge. He played on the studio albums Third (1970), Fourth (1971) and 5 (1972), as well as many radio sessions and European tours, resulting in later archive albums such as Peel Sessions. While in Soft Machine, Dean also formed his own jazz group with Neville Whitehead (bass) and Phil Howard (drums), releasing his eponymous debut on CBS in 1971 (with Ratledge guesting), and played with Barry Guy's Jazz Composers' Orchestra and Keith Tippett's 50-piece Centipede.
The Elton Dean Group had already metamorphosed into Just Us, which saw Elton reunited with Charig and Evans, by the time he left Soft Machine in May 1972. It carried on as a semi-professional ensemble until 1975, by the time the rhythm section had changed to Harry Miller and Louis Moholo on bass and drums respectively. In 1973, Dean toured Holland backing Loak Dikker, and in March 1974, immediately after a French tour with Hugh Hopper's Monster Band, replaced Charlie Mariano in the Dutch progressive rock band Supersister, touring extensively with them until their break-up in July. Back in England, he joined Chris MacGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, touring Europe with them for two years.
In January 1975, Elton Dean launched his most ambitious project to date, the large ensemble Ninesense, which included many of the British jazz scene's most talented musicians, including Keith Tippett, Mark Charig, Nick Evans, Harry Miller and Louis Moholo. He also formed his own quartet, EDQ, with Tippett, Moholo and bassist Chris Laurence, recording They All Be On This Old Road (1977) for Ogun Records; around the same time he also formed El Skid with fellow saxophone player Alan Skidmore. In the autumn of 1975, he also joined forces with Tippett, Jim Richardson (bass) and Pip Pyle (drums) as the Weightwatchers, whose brief existence culminated in September 1976 with an epic tour of the Netherlands, The following month, Dean and Tippett formed yet another quartet, this time with Hugh Hopper and Joe Gallivan (drums and synthesizer), which recorded the album Cruel But Fair for Compendium.
1977 was another busy year, with more Ninesense activities, a tour of France and Germany with Tippett/Hopper/Gallivan, an album and European tour with Carla Bley's band (alongside Hugh Hopper and Gary Windo), and a trio album with Gallivan and Kenny Wheeler, The Cheque Is In The Mail. In 1978, he formed Soft Heap with Pip Pyle, Hugh Hopper and Alan Gowen. An inaugural French tour with Dave Sheen replacing Pyle resulted in the Soft Head album Rogue Element, and later that year the band went in the studio to record its eponymous debut, with Pyle back on the drum stool. Around the same time El Skid finally made its recording debut.
Dean's activities at the turn of the decade were a little less prolific : Soft Heap carried on with some personnel changes (John Greaves coming in on bass, Mark Hewins on guitar replacing Gowen after his untimely death in 1981), his own EDQ recorded the album Boundaries (1980) for the ECM sublabel Japo, and he guested on National Health's tribute album to Gowen, D.S. Al Coda (1982). Canterbury links were further renewed when he joined Phil Miller's new band, In Cahoots (of which he's been a permanent fixture for over 20 years now), and a couple of years later drummer Pip Pyle's jazz band L'Equip'Out. To keep busy during his spare time, he also formed yet another EDQ which recorded a couple of albums in the mid-80's. Later in the decade, he also formed the Dean/Etheridge Quartet with guitarist Etheridge, and the rhythm section of Fred Baker and Mark Sanders. Other projects during that period included the Duos and Trios tapes which he released on his own label, ED Tapes, and his Unlimited Saxophone Company.
The 1990's saw the continuation of Dean's participation in In Cahoots (the albums Recent Discoveries, Parallel and Out Of The Blue, and numerous tours) and Equip'Out (until its demise in the mid-90s), amidst various jazz projects. The mid-Nineties witnessed the return of the EDQ with a unique line-up of Sophia Domancich on piano, and old friends Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin, on the CD Silent Knowledge on the American label Cuneiform. Dean also formed a new large jazz ensemble, Newsense.
Dean's back catalogue has been partly reissued with the advent of the digital age, although sadly such masterpieces as the Ninesense albums (although Hux released a CD of their BBC sessions in 2003), They All Be On This Old Road and Boundaries remain unavailable in digital form. Thankfully, there is a flow of new releases - MoonJune released a CD of a duo improvisation by Dean and Mark Hewins from 1992, Bar Torque; also of note are the excellent Moorsong (2001) on Cuneiform, centered on quartet performances with Alex Maguire, Fred Baker and Liam Genockey; and Sea Of Infinity (2004) on Hux Records, based on his ongoing collaboration with Mark Hewins.
At the turn of the millenium Dean reacquainted himself with his Soft Machine past, first with the SoftWhere quartet in 1999, alongside Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and Keith Tippett, which played one gig in Germany. This evolved into SoftWorks, with Allan Holdsworth replacing Tippett - an exciting line-up which recorded one album, Abracadabra (2003), and performed in America, Japan, Italy and Mexico. In 2004 the quartet became the Soft Machine Legacy Project, with John Etheridge replacing Holdsworth. Dean also guested on gigs by PolySoft, a Soft Machine cover-band consisting of French musicians and Hugh Hopper; a live album recorded at Paris' Triton venue came out in May 2003.
After no less than 22 years with In Cahoots, Dean has left Phil Miller's band in 2004. His main musical activities in the past years had been Soft Machine related bands, which paired him his old cohort Hugh Hopper, such as Soft Bounds, alongside Sophia Domancich and Simon Goubert, and Alex Maguire's project Psychic Warrior, which revives the Moorsong quartet with Fred Baker and Liam Genockey, and released its debut CD in 2004. Soft Machine Legacy's debut (and, sadly, now final) album, recorded in September 2005, is due for release in March 2006, and a DVD of the band's concert in Paris last December is expected in the Spring.