Elton Dean

Jazz-fusion saxophonist with Soft Machine - from whom Elton John took his first name
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The Independent Online

Elton Dean, saxophonist, keyboard-player and composer: born Nottingham 28 October 1945; married (one daughter, one stepdaughter); died London 7 February 2006.

The British jazz musician Elton Dean played alto sax, his trademark saxello - a hybrid between the alto and the soprano - and electric piano with several line-ups of Soft Machine, the pioneering outfit which bridged the gap between Dadaism, jazz, electronic experiments and progressive rock at the tail-end of the Sixties and became one of the leading jazz fusion groups of the Seventies.

Between 1969 and 1972, Dean contributed to the Third, Fourth and Fifth albums, Soft Machine's most successful recordings, and toured with them extensively throughout the UK and continental Europe, where groups from the Canterbury Scene found their most receptive audiences. Indeed, Dean recorded with many artists from the extended Canterbury family, guesting on solo albums by the Soft Machine alumni Kevin Ayers, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt in the Seventies as well as working with musicians drawn from the ranks of Caravan, Gong, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and National Health in Phil Miller's In Cahoots throughout the Eighties and Nineties.

In the mid-Sixties, Elton Dean was a member of Bluesology, the band fronted by Long John Baldry, which also featured Reg Dwight on piano. When Dwight went solo and was asked to find a more glamorous name by the publisher Dick James in 1967, he thought about his former bandmates Dean and Baldry and became Elton John, changing his name by deed poll five years later.

During a career spanning 40 years, Dean recorded with Marsha Hunt, Julie Driscoll, Heads, Hands and Feet, Alexis Korner, Dudu Pukwana and Towering Inferno as well as touring with the American jazz performer Carla Bley and working with the British jazz éminence grise Keith Tippett on ambitious projects like Centipede which gathered the crème de la crème of British jazz players - over 40 musicians and a 19-strong string section - in 1971 on the Septober Energy album.

Dean also released several solo albums and fronted his own quintet and played with ensembles such as Just Us, Brotherhood of Breath, Ninesense and Newsense as well as collaborating with his fellow saxophonist Paul Dunmall and the guitarist Mark Hewins.

In recent years, he joined forces with the former Soft Machine members Hugh Hopper (bass), John Marshall (drums) and John Etheridge (guitar) to revive their jazz-fusion glory days and explore new horizons as SoftWorks, Soft Bounds and the Soft Machine Legacy. Last year, they recorded a new album which is due for release next month and the Soft Machine Legacy went ahead with their London gigs last week and dedicated them to Dean.

Born in Nottingham in 1945, Elton Dean grew up in Tooting, London, and had piano and violin lessons from a very early age. He lost interest in the piano but listened to jazz on the radio and used £20 his grandfather had given him as pocket money to buy a clarinet when he was 18. "Life suddenly became clearer," he said in an interview with Stephen Yarwood:

I was on my way. A couple of years later, I got my first saxophone. In those days, the trad boom was in full swing. That's what I was listening to mainly. Acker Bilk was a good player. I liked the Alex Welsh Band, I would go to the 100 Club to see these guys in action.

Dean graduated from trad jazz gigs in pubs to playing rhythm'n'blues with Lester Square and the GTs and subsequently with John Dummer at the Star Club in Hamburg, where the Beatles had learned their craft. Back in Britain in 1966, he played with the Jamaican Soul Pushers and moved on to Bluesology, the group assembled to back the singer Long John Baldry. Dean recommended his friend the trumpet player and cornetist Marc Charig, who joined Bluesology at the same time, and the pair developed an interest in improvisation. In 1968, they attended the Barry Jazz summer school in Wales and met the pianist and composer Keith Tippett and trombonist Nick Evans:

We started working straight away. I was on tenor and soprano, there were so many venues in those days. It all happened very quickly, suddenly we were part of the scene and we'd made a record.

By the time You Are Here . . . I Am There by the Keith Tippett Group came out in 1970, Dean had been recruited by Soft Machine:

We came across them playing festivals. Mike Ratledge [the keyboard player] had scored a project for a brass section and hired us en masse, plus Lyn Dobson. I remember doing successive weeks at Ronnie Scott's, one with Soft Machine and one with Keith's sextet. Ratledge was writing some pretty complex stuff by this time. It was my first experience of unusual time signatures, sevens, nines, elevens. It was all quite challenging.

The septet line-up toured the UK and France, and recorded a Top Gear session for John Peel in November 1969, but proved short-lived and soon slimmed down to a quintet and then a quartet of Dean, Hopper, Ratledge and Wyatt (drums) for Fourth:

We all realised the chemistry was right. We did the Proms, which was a bit of a novelty, the first pop group to appear. We played some good stuff during this period, Robert swallowed his unhappiness a lot but the music was moving away from his songs. In the end, there was a sense of relief when he left.

Dean began playing a Fender Rhodes piano on stage, because he didn't like the horn sound coming out of the PA systems. The Australian drummer Phil Howard replaced Wyatt for a while in 1971 but John Marshall completed the sessions for Fifth at the beginning of 1972 and Dean did another tour with Soft Machine before making way for the Welsh musician and composer Karl Jenkins from Nucleus.

Elton Dean released his first of many solo albums in 1971 and went on to front Just Us and work with a myriad of other jazz-fusion and free jazz groups, often at the cutting edge of a musical movement which, from the mid-Seventies, enjoyed only a modicum of interest in Britain but remains a staple of European festivals.

Hardly a prophet in his own country, Dean spent a considerable amount of time in France, where his unparalleled talent for improvisation was greatly appreciated. "Ideally, it's just pure reaction and exchange of energy," explained Dean:

It only happens with people who have that knowledge; when it's flowing, it's very powerful but the chemistry has to be right. Immersion in the flow is something that comes through experience, even if the musicality is there . . . You have to be strong yet sensitive to what others are playing. The art is to have a distinctive voice within the larger entity.

"I've been playing free music for decades", he said.

Pierre Perrone

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