02/22/06

Soft Machine's Elton Dean Dies

British jazz saxophonist Elton Dean died Feb. 7 in a London hospital at age 60. He had been suffering heart and liver problems over the past year. His death was unexpected and Dean had several concerts planned with his current band, Soft Machine Legacy, in support of their new DVD.

Born Oct. 28, 1945 in Nottingham, England, Dean grew up in south London and took lessons on both piano and violin as a child. While neither instrument particularly appealed to him, Dean enjoyed listening to jazz and bought a second-hand clarinet when he was 18. He began sitting in with local trad bands and soon switched to tenor saxophone.

As the British jazz scene began to flourish, Dean became entrenched in it, joining a series of bands including John Dummer’s band and Long Beach John Baldry’s Bluesology, where the pianist was a young Reginald Dwight – later to be known as Elton John, taking his name from both Dean and John Baldry.

It was in Bluesology that Dean and fellow band member, trumpeter Marc Charig, began experimenting with improvisation. The two left Baldry’s band to join pianist and composer Keith Tippett in his sextet and played on the group’s first album, You Are Here. I Am There in 1970.

During this time, Dean began playing alto saxophone and the saxello, a near extinct form of the soprano saxophone, and joined Soft Machine in late 1969. The “band” was more of a collective with a rotating cast of players and during Dean’s tenure, until 1972, Soft Machine created an amalgam of avant-garde rock and free jazz. He recorded three albums with the band, Third, Fourth and Fifth, and played a prominent role in them.

While with Soft Machine, Dean continued to collaborate with Tippett, in part as a member of the group Centipede, which quasi-appropriately featured 50 members and performed Tippett’s two-hour epic “Septober Energy.” After leaving Soft Machine, Dean took part in a number of groups, some his own and some as a member. He formed his own group, Just Us, and played with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra; he joined the Brotherhood of Breath in 1973 and the Carla Bley Band in 1977 and then Keith Tippett’s Ark in 1978; he formed the Soft Machine spin-off Soft Heap in 1978; and he became a member of the London Jazz Composers’ in 1982.

In the 1990s, Dean collaborated with a number of musicians, including Paul Rutherford, Annie Whitehead, Roswell Rudd and Marcio Mattos. He last released an album in 2005, a live album titled Avant, recorded with fellow Soft Machine member Sophia Domancich on piano.

Dean is survived by his wife, his daughter and his step-daughter.

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