Elton Dean, 1945-2006

By Ken Egbert

With an untiring imagination and an expansive sense of the absurd that never left him, winds player Elton Dean graced the British Jazz scene for the better part of five decades, very nearly up to his departure for the last tour on February 8, 2006.

I owe him a debt that I could never make good on. If indeed great music is the brain stimulant it is supposed to be, were it not for Mr. Dean and his many cohorts in the British, European, South African, and American Jazz scenes, my IQ would probably now be thirty points lower than it is.

European Jazz has always sounded a bit different from the American in that, I believe, Europeans often have a more analytical approach to playing and thinking about it. Ask Louis Armstrong what Jazz is. He once famously replied, "If you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

Conversely, the late Brit Jazz percussionist John Stevens was once queried why he'd changed his style a while back. His answer: "I was getting too busy. Jazz music is folk music and should be played as such."

Some have it that European Jazz doesn't swing, but there are other important ends besides swinging: to communicate on a level other than that of the hips and to make the music one's own are two of those. As sixties English rock bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin made the blues their own, so have European artists done the same with Jazz's tenets, and we're all, as is the music, the better for it.

Elton Dean was one of those who made Jazz his own. His communication skills on the alto saxophone and saxello (a straight-belled alto of sorts that resembles a soprano sax) were grounded in very fertile land. Early favorites included Sidney Bechet and Eddie Condon.

It's John Coltrane, however, who most seemed to give him a base from which to spring when I first heard Mr. Dean in 1970 on Soft Machine Third (CBS Records, UK) at the tender age of fifteen. At that time I thought the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra (a favorite of my dad's) was off the wall! So I was not prepared for this unstinting onslaught: an experimental quartet/septet that mixed liberal quantities of free Jazz, electronic gimcrackery, Stravinskyesque melodies, minimalist keyboard soufflés, witty nonchalance, and cavernous electric bass, sometimes all of the above simultaneously!

Labeling themselves a rock group when they bothered speaking at all, Soft Machine (named for a William Burroughs novel) consisted on that album of pianist Mike Ratledge, violinist Rab Spall, bassist Hugh Hopper, trombonist Nick Evans, cornet player Mark Charig, saxophonist Dean, drummer Robert Wyatt, flautist/saxophonist Lyn Dobson, and flautist/bass clarinetist Jimmy Hastings.

Where Mr. Dean came in for me on Third was a statement from his alto early on in the opening track, "Facelift." Amongst the buzz and keen of disappearing sheets of organ feedback, Dean's alto approached the piece's tonal center from a direction and utilizing a method which at first made no earthly sense.

Yet his attack struck me right off on another, far more intuitive level that to this day I cannot entirely explain. Yes, it's called free playing, but I'd never heard anything even close to it before. At that time Dean's highly intellectual propensity towards taking chords apart and reassembling them in different ways was one of several gambits in his soloing method, à la Coltrane to some extent, but then I hadn't heard 'Trane yet, and Elton D. was as astute a teacher of expanding upon and appreciating the method as any.

Without him to smooth the path I might never have got as far as Coltrane's A Love Supreme, much less Concert in Japan (both Impulse!, USA). It might also have been some time before I understood that the eight-tone and the twelve-tone scales are not necessarily the only highways to get one there.

Per Mr. Dean's sense of the absurd, his talent for naming his compositions cheerfully bedevils yours truly to this very day. His tart, knotty melodies were not always whistle fare, but I kept putting the records back on, only partially in hope I might one day figure out what an Ooglenovastrome might be, why anybody would want to be "First in the Wagon," or what was clearly so significant about "Fletcher's Blemish," to say nothing of Fletcher himself, whoever he was. And so on. Dean's propensity for mental word games reflected his equally elastic view of the tunes he wrote and how he played them. One could not fault him for inconsistency.

When Dean left the Softs in 1972, I pretty much followed him, and he did not disappoint. Both his composing and his playing continued to make an innate sense to me that I've seen repeated by my reactions to many other artists since.

How to explain? It's that Vulcan mind meld between the artist and the appreciator again. It's a one-way pipeline that takes a different path every time it is established. As the subconscious is involved here (one of those evasive parts of the human mind which never seems available to explain itself), many critics either forgo the attempt to bridge the gap or are left palms-up with not a lot more to say than, "Well, I guess you had to be there."

Not enough for most readers! But Mr. Dean's fellow travelers were convinced, and they honored him by having him along in a dizzying plethora of bands over the years: Keith Tippett's Ark, Supersister, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Just Us, El Skid, In Cahoots, John Stevens's Dance Orchestra, Pip Pyle's Equip Out, Softworks, Soft Heap, Polysoft, Soft Head, Elton's own Ninesense, EDQ (quintet or quartet, depending on the tour), and Newsense are just a minor list of the groups in which Mr. Dean performed.

As the years passed, his tone became more expansive, a tad less hoarse, more lyrical. He never entirely left his love for Coltrane's experimental side behind (see the "Brasilia"- reminiscent opening of "Gualchos" on his 1996 quintet date Silent Knowledge (Cuneiform Records, USA; and what's a gualcho, I wonder); but conversely on a duet recording with Brit guitar wizard Mark Hewins (Bar Torque, Moonjune Records, USA) Dean's playful, dry humor got a more serious airing. Bar Torque is magic full-stop, but that's why some religions ban music and dancing that does not refer to worship. It's a stimulant, a hallucinogen, it again can't be explained, and as such is suspect. But take a ride with Elton and friends, and one often went somewhere nobody else could access. Who needs explanations?

The best example of Mr. Dean's developing gift, and here I will leave you, comes from his performances on two versions of a Hugh Hopper piece, "Kings and Queens," some three decades apart. Its original take on 1971's Soft Machine Fourth (CBS Records, UK) has Hopper's bass as the only reliable rhythm instrument slipping in and out of clouds of processing, percussives and electric piano.

Dean rides this fog expertly, going through a loose series of set pieces as, with a certain plaintiveness that he reads from the chords, his sax dissects the root functions and rebuilds their sequence from within outwards. Occasionally Dean catches himself into those repeating loops of phrase as 'Trane used to do, but his very singular sense of idiomatic logic never lets him down.

On Polysoft's November 2002 live gig in Paris (Soft Machine Tribute, Le Triton Records, France), however, Hopper and Dean go it alone on that tune. The bass part, shorn of its electronic raiment, becomes like the clock that waits for us all in Jacques Brel's song "The Old Folks," and about it a wiser Dean paints a corona, gently pulsing and darting. He's rather like a moth wielding a paintbrush about a candle, knowing how close he can get and how many ways said atmosphere of light can be tinted anew.

He'd grown by that time to trust the spaces between the notes as much as he did the notes himself, and as such his late playing had a greater depth the closer one got to the near-present day.

I have said that European Jazz artists are often more analytical, and Mr. Dean certainly seemed to be among those. But he realized better than most that gaps of all kinds remained. On the back or in the liner of two of the CDs I've mentioned here can be found this quote: "May we all rediscover our silent knowledge." Another of Elton Dean's clever rearrangements, if you like.

Great Jazz, much of which he was responsible for, could well be considered like all great art a method of reminding us of what we never realized we already knew.

 By Ken Egbert


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