02. Something Passed Me By
03. Blind Badger
04. Neo-Caliban Grides
05. Part: The Last
Alto Saxophone, Saxello, Electric Piano, – Elton Dean
Bass – Roy Babbington (tracks: B1, B2)
Cornet – Mark Charig
Drums – Phil Howard
Electric Bass – Neville Whitehead
Electric Piano, Organ – Mike Ratledge (tracks: B1, B2)
Recorded live at advision studios, London May 1971
Being a jazz musician - and thus inclined to the wry world view - Elton Dean appreciated the irony that he was better known for giving Elton John half his name than for his own superlative saxophone playing. He might also have appreciated the grimmer irony of dying, aged 60, after more than a year of heart and liver problems, on the day before he was to join this week's reunion of the cult band Soft Machine. Dean, whose work fell mostly outside Britain, had not had a London gig for months.
An embrace of all kinds of music-making has been a characteristic of jazz since its birth, and Dean's career was a model of that openness. He won respect from his big-time debut in 1966 with R&B singer Long John Baldry's Bluesology (obituary, July 23 2005), his membership of adventurous pianist Keith Tippett's groups, four years with Soft Machine and decades in free jazz, fusion, South African township music and many Europe-wide collaborations. Bluesology's pianist Reg Dwight upgraded to Elton John by appropriating from both Dean and Baldry.
Dean's playing - on the alto sax and sometimes the soprano-like saxello - sounded fresh and familiar at the same time. He could move easily between a muscular, song-based orthodoxy and unpremeditated improvisation, and his bitter-sweet sound and twisting, eager melody lines broadened the emotions of every band he played in. He was generous and quietly delightful company, happy to lean on a bar discussing anything from free improvisation to cricket.
Born in Nottingham, the son of Salvation Army officers, Dean was taught the piano and violin in childhood, but took up the saxophone at 18 and joined Bluesology at the height of the British R&B boom three years later, partnering cornetist Marc Charig in the front line. With trombonist Nick Evans, they became founder-members of an adventurous sextet led by Tippett when they met at the 1968 Barry jazz summer school in Wales.
They ascended from student status to the cutting-edge almost overnight, secured record deals with major labels and introduced an often conservative jazz public to a way of making music that borrowed relatively little from the United States. Dean was the ideal saxophonist for Tippett; he played in the pianist's 50-piece jazz-classical-rock orchestra Centipede and with many later projects, from big bands to duos.
Between 1969 and 1972, Dean's improvising energy became crucial to the evolution of Soft Machine. He recorded three albums with the band - Third (1970), Fourth (1971) and Fifth (1972) - and performed with it on a televised late-night Prom, one of that festival's first embraces of non-classical music. It was also a period in which Soft Machine moved steadily away from off-beat rock vocals to extended jazzy improvising.
Dean's soundscape was broadened further during the later Soft Machine period by his membership of the ambitious London Jazz Composers' Orchestra under the direction of bassist Barry Guy, influenced as much by 20th-century avant-garde composers as by free-jazz. Dean took it all in his stride, and formed his own Just Us jazz-rock group in the same period, featuring Charig, Nick Evans and Phil Howard (Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt's replacement).
The 1970s were a period of constant activity for Dean. He took over American saxist Charlie Mariano's role in the Dutch jazz-rock band Supersister, toured with Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper's Monster Band, joined Chris McGregor's thrilling Brotherhood of Breath big band and formed his own EDQ ensemble, with Tippett, bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo.
But his crowning achievement of the era was Ninesense, a mid-sized band exultantly fusing South African rhythms, Tippett's stunning pianistics and Coltranesque jazz. The Melody Maker critic Steve Lake, hearing the band with this writer sometime between 1975 and 1978, observed that on that form it could have walked into any club in the world, and blown the audience away.
In 1977 Dean toured in an Anglo-American Carla Bley band, and the following year took part in two Soft Machine revisits, Soft Heap and Soft Head. His fluency in more rock-based situations led him in the 1980s and 90s to the unorthodox fusion bands In Cahoots and L'Equip'Out - the latter with the remarkable French pianist Sophia Domancich - and he helped organise many jazz events around north London, under the title of Jazz Rumours. He also issued cassettes on his ED Tapes label, featuring British players of similar broad tastes.
A welcome reissue of music first recorded in 1971 and 1972, shortly before Dean left the popular British jazz-rock group the Soft Machine, which he had officially joined only a short time earlier, in late 1969. On this recording, Dean plays alto sax, saxello and electric piano and is aided by a group of musicians which includes two additional Soft Machine members, Mike Ratledge on organ and electric piano and Roy Babbington on string bass. One of Dean's compositions on Just Us, "Neo-Caliban Grides," was actually recorded by the Softs, however, in spite of the obvious parallels, Dean's group is by no means a Soft Machine knock off. The absence of drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt and bassist Hugh Hopper reduces both the rock element and the experimental electronics, while the presence of the additional musicians -- especially Marc Charig on cornet -- gives Dean's group a fuller sound and one that is much more in the jazz tradition. Charig's contributions on horn and those of an electric guitarist on several tracks, invite some obvious comparisons with the Miles Davis electric band of the Bitches Brew era. And with the extraordinary recording by the Davis group having been released only two years earlier in 1969, its influence on hip young British jazz players would have been substantial. Dean's prominent use of the electric keyboards also provides an obvious parallel with the contemporaneous Davis group.