Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dean, Elton

Saxophonist Elton Dean's lithe playing on the alto sax and saxello made him a significant and genre-bending figure on the UK jazz scene, who also made inroads to jazz-rock and experimental music.

Born in Nottingham, England, on October 28, 1945, Dean began in music with violin and piano lessons, his teen years leading him to the clarinet and saxophone. What first attracted him to jazz was sounds of the British "trad jazz" scene, which was devoted to the sounds of New Orleans and other early jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and guitarist Eddie Condon. By the early 1960s, however, American blues began to supplant trad jazz in popularity amongst the young. The trad scene didnít disappear, but young people began to regard it as old hat.

Like many young musicians of his generation, Dean joined a blues band, Bluesology, led by singer Long John Baldry. When the band's pianist, Reginald Dwight, embarked upon a solo career, he decided on a stage name which combined the first names of his bandmates Dean and Baldry: Elton John. Dean was also later a member of Georgie Fameís Blue Flames.

The U.K. music scene in the sixties the was not quite as segregated along stylistic fault lines as it was in the United States. There was often overlap between the jazz, rock, and folk scenes - bassist Danny Thompson for instance, was a member of traditional folk ensemble Pentangle, and he also played in jazz groups. Three of the most popular and influential British rock & roll drummers came from jazz: Mitch Mitchell, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ginger Baker of Cream), and Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson.

In the mid-1960s, Dean fraternized with musicinas who had or would play with rock bands while still playing uncompromising jazz: trumpeter Marc Charig, trombonist Nick Evans, and pianist Keith Tippett. Around 1968, Tippett established his own sextet with Charig and Dean. The Tippett Sextet recorded several discs for the Vertigo label, which were mainly free jazz with touches of hard bop and rock overtones.

In 1969, Dean, Charig, and Evans divided their time between Tippettís group and the rock band Soft Machine. Soft Machine began in 1966 as a psychedelic pop band, but by 1969 had begun to evolve away from song-structures into a much more jazz-oriented direction, with an expaded horn section. Their 1970 album, considered by many to be their best, Third, was a mťlange of dense, layered textures, Philip Glass/Terry Riley-type minimalism, bracing dissonance, and alternately out/swinging horns. However, financial pressures made the band short-lived, with only Dean remaining from the horn players.

Dean stayed with Soft Machine for two more albums, Fourth in 1971 and Fifth from 1972 before disbanding. Dean however retained important musical relationships with former band members, such as bassist Hugh Hopper, which continued on-and-off for the rest of his life.

On Noisette, a Soft Machine concert recorded in Croydon, England in 1970 but released in 2000, Dean plays in tandem with soprano saxophonist Lyn Dobson. On ďEstherís Nose JobĒ they play some rough, gruff unison passages throughout the piece but Dean gets to really shine on his saxello. Over an ostinato-like pattern, it almost sounds as if heís trying to spit in rage through his horn, a bit like a 1950s blues honker, trying to get the nastiest tone possible. Deanís smoldering lines swirl about, then he builds into pointed, upper-register squeals, never losing the forward-sounding impetus. At moments, Dean's sound recalls the playing Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler, but his sound is distinctive.

In 1971, while Dean was still a member of Soft Machine, British CBS released Deanís first two albums as a leader. Dean was intensely active through the 1970s: he played in El Skid, a band co-led with Alan Skidmore, with Chris MacGregorís Brotherhood Of Breath and the Carla Bley Band, his own Quartet, and various one-off projects, such as The Cheque Is In The Mail, a trio album with Kenny Wheeler and Joe Gallivan.

He also formed a large group, Ninesense, and a Soft Machine spin-off of sorts, Soft Heap, with Hugh Hopper. Perhaps his longest-running association was with Phil Millerís group In Cahoots, which he joined in 1981 and is still a member.

The 1980s and 1990s found Dean playing in a succession of quartets, which featured pianist Sophia Domancich and guitarists John Etheridge and Mark Hewins, as well as in an assortment of Soft Machine spin-offs and tribute bands, such as SoftWhere, PolySoft, Soft Bound, the Soft Machine Legacy Project, and a revival of Ninesense called Newsense, featuring trombone greats Roswell Rudd, Annie Whitehead, and Paul Rutherford.

The Newsense album mixeshard bop and free jazz with touches of Ellington in the trombone parts. One of the highlights is the punchy, swinging ďThree Forty,Ē whose arrangement could almost be by Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, or 1960s-vintage Gil Evans).

Deanís solo on this track a tart, blues-tinged wail, with no overt blues licks, which sounds compressed, as if he were focusing on the altoís middle range. He dances and twirls over the rhythm, darting, thrusting and parrying dramatically, occasionally and suddenly shooting into the upper register for some joyful, energized squeals while always maintaining a sense of swing. Thereís a feeling of intense urgency, but no anger or frenzy. The vocabulary is based in Charlie Parker and Art Pepper, but the words are all Dean.

In 2005, Dean was hospitalized due to cirrhosis of the liver. He was in Londonís Homerton Hospital when he passed away February 8, 2006.

Select discography:

Dedicated To You But You Werenít Listening, Keith Tippett, 1971 Repertoire

Third, Keith Tippett, 1970 Columbia/Sony

Noisette, Soft Machine, 1970 Cuneiform

Just Us, 1971 Cuneiform

Live In Japan, In Cahoots, 1993

Silent Knowledge, 1995 Cuneiform

Elton Deanís Newsense, 1997 Slam

Live At The BBC, 2003 Hux

Contributor: Mark Keresman