Dean, Elton

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Elton Dean

Saxophonist, keyboardist, composer

While he is best remembered for his work with the British rock-jazz group Soft Machine, saxophonist Elton Dean was an indispensable figure in European jazz for more than 30 years, until his death in 2006. The list of bands he has led or played in is almost too large to recite. Like many musicians of the so-called "Canterbury Scene," which included Daevid Allen and Gong, Elton Dean maintained connections throughout his career with several key figures of 1960s British rock and jazz.

Dean was born in 1945 in Nottingham, England. He trained in violin and piano at an early age but showed little musical enthusiasm until buying a clarinet in his teens. By the time he switched to saxophone, Dean had taken to jazz and developed considerable self-taught ability. Legend has it that his first notable gig was with the R&B band Bluesology, whose membership included singer Long John Baldry and one Reginald Dwight on piano. Dwight later copped parts of Baldry's and Dean's names to become "Elton John." While Dwight was forging a partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton Dean attended the Barry Jazz Summer School in Wales. There he played with pianist Keith Tippett, trumpeter Mark Charig, and trombonist Nick Evans. They cut an album, You Are Here … I Am There, funded by Tippett's Arts Council grant. They also landed sessions gigs with commercially successful bands, including work by Tippett, Charig, and Evans on the King Crimson album Lizard. Meanwhile, Dean, Charig, and Evans were hired, along with sax and flute player Lyn Dobson, to augment Soft Machine. They can be heard, sometimes with tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore, on 1969 recordings from the John Peel BBC radio program Top Gear, as well as on a 1970 live performance from the Soft Machine album Third. Unfortunately, Soft Machine's experiment as a septet was short-lived due to financial constraints and road weariness. Elton Dean accepted an offer to remain with the group, while the other members of the horn section moved on.

Worked with Soft Machine

Soft Machine had already endured several personnel changes since its 1966 inception. The band started as the quartet of Daevid Allen on guitar, Kevin Ayers on bass and vocals, Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, and Mike Ratledge on keyboards. They recorded a sparse demo subsequently released as Jet Propelled Photograph. Allen left for legal reasons while Ayers, Wyatt, and Ratledge backed the Jimi Hendrix Experience on tour, establishing their standing as the avant-garde rock band of the day. In late 1968 their debut album, The Soft Machine, was released to much acclaim. At this stage the band had a decidedly psychedelic bent, relying on Wyatt's soulful vocals and Ratledge's manic organ work. Volume Two was released the following year and foreshadowed the band's movement toward longer and more intricate compositions. Hugh Hopper replaced Kevin Ayers on bass and his brother, Brian Hopper, was featured on saxophone. Wyatt remained on vocals, but took a jazzier approach.

With the addition of Elton Dean and the departure of Charig, Evans, and Dobson, Soft Machine consisted of what is generally regarded as its "classic" lineup, with Dean on alto saxophone, saxello, and electric piano, Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Mike Ratledge on keyboards, and Hugh Hopper on electric bass. Two of the four tracks on 1970's Third feature this ensemble, showcasing Dean as the primary soloist. With the release of Fourth in 1971, the band had completed its transformation from progressive rock to fusion. Gone were Wyatt's vocals and any pop sensibilities. Wyatt's losses were Dean's gains, however, as the latter made the most of his own compositional and improvisational skills. Charig, Evans, and Skidmore played on several tracks, along with Jimmy Hastings on flute and clarinet and Roy Babbington on double bass. By the time Five was released in 1972, Wyatt had departed and was replaced by Australian drummer Phil Howard, at Dean's suggestion. Howard played on side one of Five but was replaced for side two by John Marshall, after Ratledge and Hopper decided that Howard's style was too "free" for their compositions. They left it to Dean to fire Howard, and this caused a rift that ended Dean's formal association with the group.

Though Soft Machine went on to release several more LPs with multiple personnel changes, the third, fourth, and fifth albums are the standout efforts, in great measure due to Dean's stunning saxophone and saxello work. He could execute Ratledge's complex melody lines through neck-breaking time signatures, but was equally at ease improvising in more loosely structured numbers written by Hopper and himself. By turns, he could sound beautifully lyrical or unsettlingly nervous. Most important, the tone of his alto and saxello fit perfectly with Ratledge's high-register Lowery organ and Hugh Hopper's expansive fuzz bass. The music had the complexity and agility of jazz and the stinging electric feel of progressive rock. Many have pointed to Miles Davis's 1970 release "Bitches Brew" as the epitome of jazz-rock fusion, but there is a good argument that Soft Machine arrived there first, though they approached from the rock side of the spectrum. If Soft Machine deserves such credit, Dean's sax work must be recognized as cementing whatever jazz pedigree the band earned.

Launched Solo Career

Dean's departure from Soft Machine in 1972 limited his commercial potential, but it launched his career as a bandleader and jazz collaborator. Before Soft Machine's Five was released, Dean's first solo LP, Elton Dean, was issued in 1971 as part of the Soft Machine contract with CBS. It featured Phil Howard on drums, Neville Whitehead on bass, Mike Ratledge on keyboards, Mark Charig on cornet, and Roy Babbington on bass. The album was improvised in the studio, displaying a free jazz style not explored by Soft Machine. In 1972 Dean formed the Elton Dean Group, later changed to Just Us, featuring former Soft Machine sidemen Mark Charig and Nick Evans. Between 1973 and 1975 Dean went on tour with bassist Hugh Hopper's Monster Band and Chris MacGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, reaching out to a wider audience of African and European jazz fans.

Buoyed by the success of these international tours, Dean founded what is often regarded as his finest group, Ninesense. The band was a veritable Who's Who of British jazz, reuniting Dean with Keith Tippett, Mark Charig, Nick Evans, and Alan Skidmore, and also featuring bassist Harry Miller, drummer Louis Moholo, and trumpeters Mongezi Feza and Harry Beckett. Like the Brotherhood of Breath, Ninesense had the power of a swing band as well as an international flavor, due to the contributions of South Africans Moholo and Feza. Ninesense released Oh! for the Edge in 1976 and Happy Daze in 1977.

Other Projects

In 1977 Dean also toured with the Carla Bley Band, playing alongside Hugh Hopper, saxophonist Gary Windo, and famed trombonist Roswell Rudd, among others. The album European Tour '77 documented Dean's work with Bley and demonstrated his versatility within the jazz domain. Later that year, Dean and Hopper teamed with members of the band Hatfield and the North to form Soft Heap. The lineup included Alan Gowen on keyboards and Pip Pyle on drums. Although Soft Heap toured extensively through the 1970s and 1980s, they only released one studio album, Soft Heap, and a live album titled A Veritable Centaur. Before the live set was recorded, Alan Gowen died of leukemia and John Greaves replaced Hopper on bass. Mark Hewins was featured on guitar, beginning a long-term association with Dean that lasted well into the 1990s and is captured on the excellent 1992 release Bar Torque.

Dean's collaboration with members of Hatfield and the North led him to Hatfield guitarist Phil Miller's band In Cahoots, with whom he played from the 1980s through 2004, along with Pip Pyle, Richard Sinclair on bass, and Peter Lemer on keyboards. The band released several albums and underwent many personnel changes, including stops by Hugh Hopper, keyboardist Steve Franklin, and bassist Fred Baker. It was primarily a vehicle for Phil Miller's compositions and featured some of the best elements of the Soft and Hatfield groups. Recognizing that new generations of fans were rediscovering his work with Soft Machine, Dean partnered with other ex-Softs to form Soft Works. The 2003 release Abracadabra featured guitarist Allan Hold-sworth, Hugh Hopper, and John Marshall. The name of the band was changed to the Soft Machine Legacy when guitarist John Etheridge replaced Holdsworth in 2004. They toured all over the world from 2002 to 2004, and will likely resume touring despite Dean's death from heart failure in early 2006.

For the Record …

Born on October 28, 1945, in Nottingham, England; died on February 8, 2006.

Joined Long John Baldry's Bluesology, 1967; joined Keith Tippet sextet, 1967; joined Soft Machine, 1969; left Soft Machine, 1972; joined Brotherhood of Breath, 1973; formed Soft Heap, 1978; died on eve of tour with Soft Machine Legacy, 2006.

Among the members of the Canterbury family, Elton Dean was probably its most prolific. His career more than 30 years and covered ground in rhythm and blues, rock, jazz, and fusion. Due to the staying power of his work with the Soft Machine, he will undoubtedly be remembered as a major figure in British music.

Selected discography

With Soft Machine

Third, Columbia, 1970.
Fourth, One Way, 1971.
Fifth, One Way, 1972.
Live at the Proms 1970, Reckless, 1988.
Live in France, One Way, 1995.
Virtually, Cuneiform, 1998.
Noisette, Cuneiform, 2000.
(As Soft Works) Abracadabra, Tone Center, 2003.
BBC in Concert 1971, Hux, 2005.

Solo albums

Elton Dean, CBS, 1971.
Just Us, Cuneiform, 1971.
Elton Dean's Ninesense: Live at the BBC, Hux, 1975.
Oh! For the Edge, Ogun, 1976.
Happy Daze, Ogun, 1976.
Cheque Is in the Mail, Ogun, 1977.
Cruel But Fair, Compendium, 1977.
Ninesense, Ogun, 1977.
They All Be on This Old Road, Ogun, 1977.
El Skid, Vinyl, 1978.
Welcomet, Impetus, 1987.
The Bologna Tape, Ogun, 1988.
EDQ Live, ED, 1989.
Duos and Trios, ED, 1989.
Trios, ED, 1989.
Unlimited Saxophone Company, Ogun, 1989.
All the Tradition, Slam, 1990.
The Vortex Tapes, Slam, 1990.
Silent Knowledge, Cuneiform, 1995.
Twos & Threes, Voiceprint, 1995.
If Dubois Only Knew, Voiceprint, 1996.
Bladik, Cuneiform, 1997.
Newsense, Slam, 1997.
Into the Nierika, Blueprint, 1998.
The Mind in the Trees, Blueprint, 1998.
QED, Blueprint, 2000.
Moorsong, Cuneiform, 2001.
Bar Torque, Moonjune, 2001.
Live at the BBC, Hux, 2003.
Sea of Infinity, Hux, 2004.
Free Jazz, Hux, 2005.



Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 1999.

The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 2001.


"Elton Dean," All Music Guide, (July 11, 2006).

Hulloder—The Soft Machine Pages, (July 11, 2006).

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Dean, Elton

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