Elton Dean, who died at 60 on February 8th 2006, was a totally unique musician : at times lyrical and moving, at others explosive and unsettling, his approach of saxophone playing was totally his own, besides the fact that he favoured a little-used member of the sax family : the saxello, an hybrid between alto and soprano, with an instantly recognizable sound. Over the years, Dean lent his immense talents to bands like Soft Machine, Soft Heap, In Cahoots and L'Equip'Out, as well as many jazz ensembles featuring Keith Tippett, Hugh Hopper, Pip Pyle, Mark Hewins and John Etheridge.
Elton Dean was born in Nottingham in 1945. He started taking piano and violin lessons at a very early age, and bought his first saxophone when he reached 18. At that point, he'd become interested in jazz listening to the radio and records, particularly traditional English jazz, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, etc. By the mid-60's, Dean had started playing in London pubs, and became a professional musician. In 1966-67, he played alongside trumpet player Mark Charig in Long John Baldry's band Bluesology (whose piano player borrowed his and Baldry's first names to start a career as pop singer under the name Elton John), Georgie Fame's Blue Flames and Marsha Hunt's backing band. Late in 1967, Dean and Charig met pianist Keith Tippett and trombone player Nick Evans, thus the formation of the Keith Tippett Sextet, which played in various clubs in 1968-69 and recorded two albums for the Vertigo label.
In the Autumn of 1969, Tippett's brass section of Dean, Evans and Charig was absorbed into Soft Machine. While the latter two left after only a couple of months, Dean soldiered on, and for two years was part of the band's most vividly remembered line-up, alongside Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge. He played on the studio albums Third (1970), Fourth (1971) and 5 (1972), as well as many radio sessions and European tours, resulting in later archive albums such as Peel Sessions. While in Soft Machine, Dean also formed his own jazz group with Neville Whitehead (bass) and Phil Howard (drums), releasing his eponymous debut on CBS in 1971 (with Ratledge guesting), and played with Barry Guy's Jazz Composers' Orchestra and Keith Tippett's 50-piece Centipede.
The Elton Dean Group had already metamorphosed into Just Us, which saw Elton reunited with Charig and Evans, by the time he left Soft Machine in May 1972. It carried on as a semi-professional ensemble until 1975, by the time the rhythm section had changed to Harry Miller and Louis Moholo on bass and drums respectively. In 1973, Dean toured Holland backing Loak Dikker, and in March 1974, immediately after a French tour with Hugh Hopper's Monster Band, replaced Charlie Mariano in the Dutch progressive rock band Supersister, touring extensively with them until their break-up in July. Back in England, he joined Chris MacGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, touring Europe with them for two years.