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Influential British fusion and free jazz saxophonistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
It would be unfortunate, though not surprising, if future generations remember Elton Dean less for his outstanding contributions to music than for his namesake status. When he began working professionally in 1967, Dean joined Long John Baldry’s Bluesology band. The pianist in the group, young Reginald Dwight, came to idolize the saxophonist so much that he selected a new stage name in honor of his bandmate. Elton John was born, and the rest is history.
But not entirely. Elton Dean, who died of heart failure on February 8, 2006 at the age of sixty, led a magnificent career of his own after crossing Mr. Dwight’s path. He rose to prominence thanks to his next gig, in pianist Keith Tippett’s acclaimed group. Alongside trumpeter Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, Dean helped to change the face of contemporary British jazz by breaking through the boundaries of free music and rock. Dean’s classic recordings with Tippett’s group are You Are Here… I Am There and Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening (both on Vertigo).
Meanwhile, an upstart Canterbury group called Soft Machine was undergoing some personnel changes. Bassist Hugh Hopper, singer/drummer Robert Wyatt and organist Mike Ratledge had cut two extremely unusual records that made the Beatles’ experiments sound like a children’s TV soundtrack. The trio talked Tippett’s entire horn section – Dean, Charig and Evans – into joining Soft Machine on tour. Evans and Charig ended up leaving the band within a year, leaving Dean as the band’s lead hornman. In 1970 the quartet lineup of Soft Machine recorded Third (CBS), considered their finest moment as they solidified their jazz-rock roots and moved further from their initial weirdness. Besides his principal alto sax, Dean also played saxello, a rare, sinuous variation on the soprano saxophone (related to, if not the same as, Roland Kirk’s manzello). The band became the molten core of an adventurous art-rock/jazz scene around Canterbury, inspiring the birth of Gong, Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and National Health.
Dean made two more Soft Machine albums, Fourth and Fifth (both CBS) before leaving to lead his own bands. But the influence of the Canterbury scene was inescapable for Dean. He continued to work with its members for the rest of his life, recording with Hopper (Monster Band, Mercy Dash), Wyatt (End of an Ear), and Gong/National Health drummer Pip Pyle (Up!). Dean’s own Just Us (1971, CBS) featured Charig, Ratledge and other Machine associates. He also kept in touch with Keith Tippett, working in the big bands Centipede (Septober Energy) and Ark (Frames [Music For an Imaginary Film]).
For the next three decades Dean was prolific as a session leader (Ninesense, Happy Daze and several other albums for Harry Miller’s Ogun label; All the Tradition (Slam); Silent Knowledge (Cuneiform); Bar Torque (Moonjune)) and a sideman (Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Carla Bley, Alexis Korner, Dudu Pukwana, National Health, Roswell Rudd, Psychic Warrior). He alternated between acoustic and electrical projects, mainstream sounds and the avant-garde. He also participated in a scad of Soft Machine offshoots and tribute groups over the years: Soft Heap, SoftWorks with Allan Holdsworth, PolySoft, Soft Bounds, and most recently, Soft Machine Legacy (2005, Moonjune). Dean had suffered heart and liver problems for some time prior to his death.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.