Elton Dean Probably best known for his time in the pioneering English jazz/rock combo Soft Machine, saxophonist Elton Dean is nowadays a highly respected player on the free jazz and new music scene. He kindly invited me over to his north London flat to look back on a career that began in the mid sixties and continues to this day with an energy that shows no signs of abating. 20 years after he left Soft Machine his work from that era continues to reverberate. A recent resurgence of interest has enabled him to tap into a hitherto unrealised market in the USA and the far East.

A recent deal with Moonjune, a New York based label run by Leonardo Pavkovic has given ED another outlet in the USA. They are behind the release of Bar Torque, an acclaimed duet with Mark Hewins. How did the deal come about?

"I'd previously met Leonardo when I was over there with Joe Gallivan a couple of years back. We kept in contact and he invited me over, we just chewed the fat for a week, hanging out at his office while he was promoting a couple of releases, not for Moonjune who hadn't really started then but for some other label."

"One of Moonjune's first releases was Bar Torque the duet with Mark Hewins from 1992 which is currently being promoted. There's quite a few more things in the pipeline, a Soft Heap live album (ED plus Mark Hewins, John Greaves and Pip Pyle), and we're discussing putting out an anthology of mine sometime next year. It would be mainly unreleased stuff with one or two favourites thrown in. I've got lots of live stuff, it's amazing what you can do with old cassettes these days. I've got the very last performance of Ninesense from the late 70s, duets with Evan Parker, and various old BBC Quintet tapes."

The trips to the USA were a revelation


"I discovered a market I never knew existed. I'd previously had an outlet through Cuneiform Records, but in going over there with Joe Gallivan's project I suddenly found myself inundated with different generations of fans through the Soft Machine connection. I had people coming up to me with whole collections of vinyl and CDs for signing. The second time I went out there I did a personal appearance at a record store where they had arranged a duet with another sax player, and it was packed out. There were even teenagers there and these kids were all buying the records, I had no idea this audience was out there. The transfer of all of the old Soft Machine stuff onto CD had brought the more mature fans out of the closet to replace their vinyl and it would seem that their sons and daughters have been taking notice. I was astonished."

The philosophy of the independent American record companies is significantly at odds with their cousins in the UK.

"The professionalism and business drive at Cuneiform and Moonjune is totally unlike the sort of hobby mentality that prevails amongst small independent labels over here. The Americans put money up front, they understand the market, they know how many they can sell, they have staff, they work hard on promotion and distribution and generally create interest. There's an energy that doesn't exist in Britain any more, they are mystified by the amateur attitude over here, they don't understand why it's hidden away."

It's very pleasing to see the younger end of the market showing an interest. Much could be due to the availability of information on the Internet enabling people from all over the world to link up and share interests.

"Yes it's all very encouraging, I can see my future one day being over there. I can't really work here. There has also been a lot of interest from Japan, mainly again through the Soft Machine connection. After Sony bought up CBS Softs stuff began to appear and the fan base was consolidated. I'm going there in December with In Cahoots to do a couple of concerts. Now we've established a market over there we're hoping to use Leonardo's connections to try and break through into China. The Chinese are the great untapped source and they are keen to create a market for jazz. Trying to get British record companies interested is a waste of time, so instead we're concentrating on the States and the Far East."

The future looks healthy which is good news, but where did it all begin?

"I had piano tuition from the age of about four which I hated, then a bit of violin, I suppose it helped me later but I got the impression that the teachers were trying to encourage my parents to stop wasting their money. I did musical theory up to grade 5 or thereabouts, so I can read music although I've never been a fluent sight reader. I didn't touch piano again for years until I started working in jazz groups around the age of 18, the big difference then was learning by experience, not just theory from a book. I remember seeing a clarinet in a shop window, luckily my grandparents had just given me some money so I could just about afford it plus a couple of reeds. Life suddenly became clearer, I was on my way, although it was not until a couple of years later that I got my first saxophone. In those days the trad boom was in full swing, so that's what I was listening to mainly. Acker Bilk was a good player, I liked the Alex Welsh Band, every Monday evening I would go to the 100 Club to see these guys in action."

Having absorbed the influences of London's jazz clubs it was time to play for real.

"It all happened fairly quickly, I joined a South London trad band doing a few pub gigs, you could work quite a lot in pubs in those days. Initially I was playing clarinet, then I bought a sax the result of which was I had to leave school so I could work to keep up the payments. I got involved with an R 'n B band called Lester Square and the GTs, we went over to Germany and ended up getting completely ripped off. Two of the band came back straight away, but I stayed out there with the drummer John Dummer and picked up with an Irish showband at the Star Club. I stayed about a year, then back in the UK I did a few more showband gigs and then joined a soul outfit called the Soul Pushers."

The vibrant club scene in mid sixties London was a land of opportunity for up and coming musicians.

"It was a good time, the club scene was booming, people like Keith Moon and various Beatles would be hanging out, it was all happening. At that time there were a lot of good bands down at the Q Club, Harry Beckett's group The Nightimers included a young John McLaughlin, Mark Charig was playing with The Sidewinders, John Marshall was with the Blue Flames. It was a good scene to get into, we backed various singers, Ronnie Jones was one I remember. I had my horn stolen after a gig at the Q Club, so there was a bit of a gap until I sorted that out, eventually I picked up a tenor."

A chance meeting lead to higher profile work. Bluesology were a renowned R 'n B outfit probably best known for their association with singer Long John Baldry. Their piano player was a struggling songwriter called Reg Dwight who later embarked on a solo career. Searching around for a more appealing alternative to his given name he combined the first names of his former saxophone player and vocalist and became Elton John. Whatever became of him?

"I ran into Pete Gavin who'd been the drummer with the Soul Pushers but was now working with Bluesology, he said they were looking for a brass section and within a few days I was in. They wanted a trumpet player so I recommended Mark Charig, and he was soon recruited. Reg Dwight was the keyboard player, and also a frustrated singer, his problem was that we already had three regular singers, Alan Walker, Stu Brown and Marsha Hunt, not that she was a terribly good singer but she looked great. Bluesology eventually became a bit of a struggle, I remember backing some awful one hit wonders called the Paper Dolls on one tour. Sometimes we would get to open the show as a quartet, occasionally with Long John Baldry. He was a good singer, actually he was best heard solo, just him and a 12 string guitar singing the blues, a fantastic voice. Then he got into recording ballads with strings, and of course immediately had hit records. He lives in Canada nowadays."

A more serious jazz attitude was coming to the fore, ED began to move away from the R 'n B scene and into full scale improvisation.

"We had got to know some of the main faces like Mike Osborne and Harry Miller. Mike was an integral part of the scene until a nervous disorder stopped him playing. By 1968 Mark and I had begun to play more improvised stuff so we decided to enrol at the Barry Jazz Summer School down in Wales, and that was where we met Keith Tippett and Nick Evans. After that Keith came to London got the band together and started working straight away, I was on tenor and soprano, there were so many venues in those days. It all happened very quickly, suddenly we were part of the scene and we'd made a record."

The album You Are Here, I Am There, released in 1970 was entirely composed by Keith Tippett. It develops themes and excerpts from a much longer composition that had been commissioned by the Arts Council. On the original vinyl side 1 has two extended pieces, whereas side 2 rings the changes with six shorter sketches, all no doubt expanded in the live context.

"Strictly speaking it was actually our second record, we'd already been involved with someone who had a studio where we cut a record that never saw the light of day, I think I might have an acetate of it somewhere. We did a lot of gigs, Keith had an Arts Council Grant to compose and that helped us get off the ground. The press was good and we soon had festival bookings, that's where we came across Soft Machine and a project that Mike Ratledge had scored for a brass section. He hired us en masse, plus Lyn Dobson. Lyn was on the fringe of the jazz scene, I'd seen him in a band with John Marshall and John McLaughlin, but I think he came to us from the Blue Flames or was it Manfred Mann?"


A moment of decision loomed, to carry on in a more pure jazz direction with Keith Tippett, or enter the world of rock music. The latter seemed more attractive at the time.

  "Initially as a horn section we were shared, I remember doing two successive weeks at Ronnie's one with Soft Machine and one with Keith's sextet. Ratledge was writing some pretty complex stuff by this time, it was my first experience of unusual time signatures, sevens, nines, elevens, it was all quite challenging."

This Softs line up was brilliant, but ultimately doomed. It all proved too unwieldy and difficult to manage in terms of both personnel and budget. The only recordings released so far are sessions for John Peel's Top Gear on Radio 1 in November 1969, although elements of the line up contributed to parts of Third and Fourth.

"The first tour we did was a long one about 6 weeks, and everyone seemed to get ill at some point. The biggest difficulty was balancing the sound, we used to have bugs in the horns rather than use standard miking techniques. The technology was at a very formative stage and that was the most unsatisfactory part really. The band were very loud onstage, some would use earplugs!! I'm sure it affected my hearing at the top end. Nick really couldn't get along with the amplified trombone, he was never really happy touring. Mark got a bit disorientated and eventually he and Nick left to join the Brotherhood of Breath."

"There were also financial problems, I don't really think the band could afford to run the complete horn section, in the end everyone was quite happy to reduce it to a quintet, it was much more manageable. Having said that there was some nice writing and some good gigs. Lyn lasted a few months longer, he had one or two wayward experiences, went over the edge a bit and that was that. So we were down to a quartet, but I think we all soon realised the chemistry was right."

Side one of Third was Hugh Hopper's Facelift which was the quintet before Lyn Dobson left. He contributes soprano and flute to live recordings stitched together from gigs at Croydon and Birmingham in January 1970.


Sides two and four are the basic quartet augmented occasionally by Jimmy Hastings and Nick Evans, with side three Robert Wyatt's almost totally solo Moon in June. The closest they got to the big band sound in the studio was Ratledge's Teeth on Fourth with Alan Skidmore in for Lyn Dobson, plus extra bass from Roy Babington.

  "We did The Proms which was a bit of a novelty, we played poorly though. It came about through Mike's contact with Tim Souster, who was putting on an evening of music. Mike was playing with Souster at the beginning of the programme and we appeared later, the first pop group to appear. The sound was terrible in the Albert Hall, we were too loud for it really."

Soft Machine, darlings of the establishment? I think not.

"Overall though we played some good stuff during this period, Robert swallowed his unhappiness a lot and enjoyed it but there came a time when he just couldn't take it anymore. The music was moving away from his songs, I remember when we first started with the horns there was a trio set of all Robert's stuff before the rest of us came on."

"There were things going on within that trio, barely spoken but felt, Robert's pieces were dropped one by one until he would just try and incorporate his voice into the improvisation, which probably wasn't enough for him. I was too busy concentrating on the music to fully comprehend the personality issues going on around me. It was never discussed, there were no blazing rows. I got on well with Robert most of the time, we were good mates for a while, although we did have a bit of a disagreement during a tour of the States shortly before he quit. It's funny but some of the best improvisation we did was during the period leading up to Robert's departure. If he wanted to carry on with the songs he never really said so, we didn't rehearse much or discuss direction, we would go on tour and things would happen, pieces would be written by Mike and Hugh and we would play them."  

"I wasn't really writing much then, just a few themes or sketches to kick off an improvisation, there's some good examples on the Virtually album. In the end I think there was a sense of relief when Robert left, John Marshall was the obvious replacement but he was busy with Jack Bruce so I suggested Phil Howard. I was already working with him on a pretty regular basis, conveniently he was living next door to me at the time. Mike showed interest initially so after an impressive audition Phil was in."

Phil Howard was a flamboyant Australian whose style of drumming was of the Tony Williams school.

"On stage Phil and I would take the music into new areas of freedom, perhaps a bit beyond what Mike and Hugh could handle. Phil wouldn't exactly play the time signatures as such, they might just be implied, a pulse beneath ever increasing layers of rhythm. He was an astonishing drummer, a real powerhouse, he had those big resonant double bass drums, he was great to play duets with. In the end Mike and Hugh decided he was too hot to handle and had to go, to my horror I was given the job of telling him. There had been no indication that they wanted him out, the decision seemed to be made very suddenly. I was not consulted, it would appear that I was still looked upon as a junior member of the band. John Marshall was now available and the obvious replacement, in all honesty he was the ideal drummer for the band being able to keep the required rhythmic accuracy, more so than Robert ever could. I really left when Phil was fired, I was well pissed off, I did one more tour with John Marshall on drums."

Thus ended the classic Soft Machine, they were never really quite such a potent force again. Undoubtedly the later line ups produced much excellent music but never with the same maverick feel, it all became a rather clinical.

  "Apart from the musical differences there were financial reasons for leaving, quite simply there was no money, the band were virtually bankrupt due to mismanagement of the accounts, I just couldn't see any future in it. Our manager Sean Murphy wanted to release various tapes he had accumulated over the years but none of the royalties were ever going to come our way. We finally got the Union to pay for a decent lawyer to help us out, it never actually got to court, the case built up and we managed to block all his moves."

"Alfie did a lot of hustling on Robert's behalf, and I had a contact at EMI who searched out old contracts. All we could do was plug the holes, I think we now get what's due to us, I still get royalties on all the Softs albums, just a trickle but it's there. Robert suffered more because he sold more records when his solo career took off."

Whilst still part of the Soft Machine ED had laid the foundations for his future solo career.

  "My first album was really under the Soft Machine contract, CBS put it out but made little attempt to promote it. It was quite enjoyable to do, we just went into the studio and did it. There was only a couple of real compositions, most of it was improvised. Around the time of the split with Softs I had formed Just Us, the additional live stuff on the Just Us album was recorded around this period."
"I was beginning to play quite a bit of piano onstage as a reaction to the poor sax sound I frequently had to endure. On the Softs Live in France album there's a gig in Paris on which I play mostly piano because the horn sound was so appalling. I eventually got a Fender Rhodes out of it which was great. Just Us became my main focus, we didn't get much work, the odd gig at Ronnie's, a couple of festivals, occasional gigs in mainland Europe, Italy was always good. The line up was very fluid depending on who was available."

Apart from solo projects there was a lot of activity in other areas, ED was much in demand.


"I had a lot of work in the late seventies, Brotherhood of Breath, Barry Guy, Ninesense. The latter was a mixture of Keith's sextet and the Brotherhood of Breath, personnel and style wise. The sort of gigs Ninesense played in this country, usually small clubs and colleges, just don't exist any more, but for a while in the mid seventies there was quite a good scene. Ogun Records was putting out a lot of stuff and there would be contemporary music tours to all the major cities. There was also the first of various EDQ, usually with Keith, Louis Moholo and Harry Miller, as before we always went down well in Italy. We were as busy as any other English quartet, although mainly in Europe. I did a tour with the Carla Bley Band, mainly festivals, that was great, a weird mix of people, Hugh, Gary Windo, Roswell Rudd etc."

  The Carla Bley experience is documented on the European Tour 77 album. Aside from these jazz oriented projects there were other more experimental situations on the fringes of various genre. Much of the recorded output of Soft Heap / Head has only recently become available. Could this have been how Soft Machine might have evolved if Wyatt and Dean had not jumped ship? An interesting thought. Their final album A Veritable Centaur is not for the faint hearted, Mark Hewins is magnificent.

"Soft Heap was Alan Gowen's project (circa 1978) with Pip, Hugh and myself completing the original line up, the music was much more composed. Then Pip couldn't make one of the tours and Dave Sheen came in, so it temporarily became Soft Head, that line up produced Rogue Element which came out recently. After Hugh left John Greaves came in from National Health, and when Alan died we carried on with Mark Hewins. He was excellent, we knew straight away that it was going to work. A Veritable Centaur was totally improvised, the chemistry was weird and wonderful. The bit I particularly liked was the BBC session track, a 25 minute piece that I reckon it was the best thing the band did."

There has been talk of a Soft Heap reunion.

"It's quite possible, particularly if Leonardo puts out the live record, I believe it's his next planned release, so if that were to occur he'd be wanting to promote it. I played with Pip and John in Paris recently, the chemistry is always good because we don't play together regularly so it's always fresh. I've heard one or two groups in the last few years that are seen as being at the cutting edge but in fact they sound like us. Whether they've ever heard us I don't know."

Mark Hewins is a versatile and innovative guitar player from what you might call the second generation of Canterbury musicians, inspired by the original spirit. Mark and Elton have worked as a duo off and on for many years. Their most recent release is Bar Torque recorded at London's Jazz Caf´┐Ż.

"That was recorded back in 1992 when the synth guitar first came out with sampling capabilities, Mark was one of the first to try it out. I had no idea what was going on, or what we were going to play, I just turned up and got on stage. I began playing and reacting to all these sounds that came out. I didn't know it was being recorded, so sometimes the sax is a bit under because I had no idea I should be on mike. When I listened to it later I realised it was a really good performance."

Mark Hewins produces a tremendous range of textures to accompany what seems mainly Dean's saxello.

"There's quite a lot of alto in there too, in fact I think I was just trying out a new alto that night so maybe I didn't play it as much or maybe it had a thinner sound. It's quite possible because I wouldn't have tried out a new instrument if I'd known it was going to be recorded. This duet style was something we were getting into even before Mark got the guitar synth, he would create sounds by blowing across the strings or tapping the guitar. Our duet at the time always featured a section like that."

Elton has been a member of Phil Miller's In Cahoots for many years now. In the early eighties the Miller composing talents were maturing, his adventurous material though is perhaps sometimes suited to a larger group of musicians than economics will allow. The current In Cahoots sextet probably comes closest to being able to fully recreate the sounds conceived in Phil's head.

"Besides Phil and myself the original In Cahoots was a quartet with Pip Pyle and Richard Sinclair. Richard is a brilliant natural musician, although he doesn't actually read music. His bass playing was fine although he did eventually have a few problems as Phil's material got more demanding, but at the end of the day rather like Robert Wyatt, he could only take not being a singer for so long. He's a fantastic carpenter, I remember once during a lunch break in rehearsals he knocked up two great big boxes for Pip's drums."

Current bass player is Fred Baker, a superb technician who is equally at home on guitar. He has even been known to play solo gigs on bass.

"I'd met Fred before when he was working with Harry Beckett, he's such a good jazz bass guitarist, he has a superb walking style that really swings. When I first met him he was better known as a guitarist rather than a bass player. His father was a jazz musician, one of the earliest electric guitar players in this country."

In Cahoots are due to hit the road in late 2001.


"I did a couple of gigs with them in France recently, we've got a UK tour in the Autumn and a couple of Japanese dates. Phil's composing gets better and better, he has such a good understanding for this line up now, we been together a long time."

In 1997 ED put together a larger ensemble to play both composed and improvised material, in many ways carrying on where Ninesense had left off in the seventies but with some new angles.

  Newsense prominently featured three trombonists who became affectionately known as Snap, Crackle and Pop.

Annie Whitehead (left), versatile, schooled in jazz but happy to cross over into funk, reggae, ska etc.

Paul Rutherford (centre), uncompromising explorer, constantly pushing his instrument beyond its recognised boundaries.

Roswell Rudd (right), the trombonist's trombonist, seen it all, done it all.

"Someone had already suggested reviving Ninesense, the idea of the three trombones came from Roswell about a year before, so I combined the two. I took the quartet I'd been working with and augmented it with the trombones plus a couple of others. Roswell I've known since the days of the Carla Bley Band in the late seventies. We've always kept in touch, he's a fantastic player, every trombonist's hero, able to play in any style. Rutherford heard he was in town and came over as did Annie, Ros fell in love with her. The mix of old Ninesense stuff and newer material worked well, we made an excellent album recorded live at the Purcell Rooms in London."  

The conversation turned to other recent releases, particularly two recordings that span 20 years and show that the ED has been a major force in improvised music for a long time. Into the Nierika is a 1998 recording by a trio featuring Newsense bass player Roberto Bellatalla and drummer Mark Sanders. The Dean / Mattos / Pyle / Zagni set Three's Company, Two's a Crowd has been a long time coming, having been recorded sometime in the late seventies, but well worth the wait.

"It was a duo with Pip and a trio with Marcio and Ivan Zagni, the tapes were lost for a while but eventually resurfaced. Then I heard from Enzo Hamilton who had financed the original sessions, so I returned the tapes and he transferred them to DAT and put them out. The funny thing was not long after and completely out of the blue Ivan Zagni phoned me up, he just happened to be in town. He used to play with Jody Grind, an obscure Progrock band from Norwich who also included Boz Burrell and Tim Hinkley at various times. He later became a choirmaster in Norwich playing guitar in his spare time, we heard some of his weird and wonderful playing and invited him to town where he began working with Marcio, then he met this girl and went off to New Zealand. The recordings have worn well, the trio was recorded one Saturday morning, and the duo in Pip's garage on a 4 Track he wanted to try out. The two recordings were originally entirely separate projects, there's still another reel of me and Pip. The reels for both sessions were old and looked in poor condition but they've turned out fine. Actually when I first heard the playback on CD I thought some of it must have been transferred at double speed because the string bass sound was so high in places. I checked it against one of my original cassette copies and that was how it was, Marcio must have been playing cello although he has no recollection of it."

Soundwise Into the Nierika is sparse, there are no hiding places. The musicians revel in the freedom and produce moments of high energy and mixed with great lyricism. The flow of the music is seamless, these are players on the same wavelength.

"The trio album was recorded in Mark Hewins' front room, that's his studio, it's got a lovely sound. It was all improvised, an enjoyable afternoon's work, one drum case between the cymbals and my microphone and Roberto behind the sofa. He is your archetypal free jazz bass player, straight down the line, no electronics. The trio set up is very naked, it's something I've got into recently, we've even done a couple of gigs. I've occasionally played in duos with Keith Tippett, you're very exposed, especially if Keith is in one of his funny moods, then it's very hard to play."

  Two other releases of note have been Moorsong and QED, recorded around the same time in early 2000, mostly studio but with some material from the Wireless Festival.

"Moorsong was recorded in a pub just round the corner from where I live. It had been converted into a studio using old fashioned valve technology and there to my surprise was a Hammond B3 organ and a Fender Rhodes piano. We had a couple of really good afternoons in there and recorded most of what is on Moorsong. Then we did a couple of more things that ended up on QED, more improvised stuff with Tony Bianco. It was such a lovely set up, you are playing in what was the bar, no need to screen anything off, it's just like playing at home, you get this lovely warm sound from the valve recording gear."

I wondered if this was Alex Maguire's (right) first experience of the mighty Hammond.

"Yes that was the first time, he's got an electric keyboard for practical purposes and I think he's played church organ once before, but this was his first experience with a Hammond. He sounds like he's been playing it all his life, he didn't need to do the pedals because we had Fred Baker on bass, but on the session without the bass player he used lots of left hand."

ED's output is relatively high, several CD releases a year available from a number of other sources as well as Cuneiform and Moonjune There is clearly a core audience out there for improvised music, but how big?

  "I'm not actually signed to anybody but from time to time somebody will put up the money for a session. Rob at Voiceprint has set up 3 days of recording in Lincoln, it's duet situation where Alex Maguire will be playing the Cathedral organ. Distribution is very important, we would hope to sell 1000, maybe 2000 if the distribution is good over say a three year period. Obviously Soft Machine tends to sell more than that and my sales do benefit from the so called Canterbury connection. Voiceprint will take anything of mine and put it out, it's a good outlet in the UK. There's also George Haslam at Slam Records although he's been a bit more careful with his catalogue of late."
Mention of the church organ concept reminded us both of Mark Charig's 1977 album Pipedream which had also been recorded in a church. Keith Tippett, in his home city of Bristol, came along expecting to play piano but decided to check out the organ. The effect was startling, and he ended up playing as much organ as piano.

"I've played with Mark (right) quite recently, he's starting to work a bit more now, he's been teaching in Germany for 10 years or so. It was good to get the old team together, he hadn't changed a bit. Talking of the old team Nick Evans is still about and still sounds good, he plays with a group called Dreamtime, he's on the QED CD. He still has the day job as a physics teacher."


For a number of years Sunday evenings at the Vortex club in Stoke Newington was the stage for Jazz Rumours, a focus for improvised music in London. ED was a prime mover in this enterprise.

"We started out in a local pub then moved to the Vortex on Sunday nights. All the music was improvised, usually played by a regular squad of musicians. In later years we began inviting guest players, mainly Europeans plus the occasional American passing through, but it never quite worked out as I'd hoped. Then I was in hospital for a while and when I came out they'd put in a disco. I was disappointed with the management, I guess they took a business decision, so much to being dedicated to the music. As I now go over to Paris on a regular basis it was becoming more difficult to run. It was never a profit making venture, I just wanted to keep it ticking over and provide the musicians with somewhere to play. I was trying to run it along the lines of Mike Osborne's Peanut Club in the sixties and seventies, but I guess it all existed in a different time when people were more jazz community minded. You could go down there any evening and catch Keith Tippett or some other jam session, there was a wide range of music and musicians, you never quite knew what to expect, now everything has to have labels on it. Anyway I've decided to stop being an organiser and administrator and get back to being a full time musician. The price we pay of course is that we end up playing front rooms rather than in public."

Spending time in France has meant seeing more of various old mates.

"As my wife works out of Paris I am over there on a regular basis. I usually play with Pip when I'm over, up in his attic. John Greaves lives over there too, I see Paul Rogers sometimes but he lives in the south, and I also play with Patrice Meyer (guitar). I did a gig fairly recently with Sophia Domancich plus rhythm section, she had a fantastic drummer called Simon Goubert."

  The live jazz scene in and around London is not what it was. ED's views on how jazz should be presented are uncompromising.

"I could count the number of times I've played live in England this year on the fingers of one hand, there's been a few more abroad, notably Verona Jazz in Italy with the Dedication Orchestra. Jazz doesn't work that well in the studio environment, it's not a true picture if you start separating the instruments and changing individual sounds. The heart of jazz culture is the sound of musicians playing together and reacting to each other. The best way to experience jazz is in a live situation, to me it just doesn't work as studio music."

The art of improvisation is a concept difficult to explain to somebody who hasn't experienced it. Are any structures and patterns planned? Do you think before you play?

"If you think about it and plan it you're missing the point, ideally it's just pure reaction and exchange of energy. It only happens with people who have that knowledge, when it's flowing it's very powerful, but the chemistry has to be right. Immersion in the flow is something that comes through experience, even if the musicality is there somebody new to it will at some stage pause and wonder where to go next. Doubt and indecision will lose the flow. There is a nucleus of players around London that I can call upon, probably around a couple of dozen. I used to get them all together for Jazz Rumours from time to time, mixing and matching, I know that any combination will work. You have to be strong yet sensitive to what others are playing, the art is to have a distinctive voice within the larger entity."

You may also be interested to read a brief extract from a BBC Radio 3 interview in which ED's old mate Evan Parker puts forward his theories on the chemistry of collective musical improvisational.  

Elton Dean's has contributed to many albums over the years, mainly in the jazz field, but there have been a few interesting if obscure sessions for artists better known then or now in other fields. For instance he played on the debut album by Heads, Hands and Feet, the group that launched country flavoured guitar hotshot Albert Lee, and also Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave fame. He played on a couple of solo albums from ex Manfred Mann drummer Mike Hugg. Then there was the debut album from Julie Driscoll (later Tippett), sessions for soul singer Reg King, and live and studio work with Georgie Fame and Alexis Korner. I wondered if ED had ever looked on session work as a vital part of his income.

"If the work was out there I'd do it. There used to be a healthy studio scene around London but nowadays a synth can do strings, horn sections etc, there just isn't the demand. Very few people can make a living that way now, the one thing they can't do on a synth though is a good sax sound so there are still real horn solos. They tend to want the funky tenor though, not much call for an alto. Most recently I had a couple of days doing sessions for a Slam compilation, and another project involving some Argentinean musicians. They also invited me over to Argentina and I had a great time in Buenos Aires. It's all a bit different from the days when I was actively looking for session work, you had to be signed up to an agency. I remember on one occasion I'd had a long blank period during which time I think I had just one gig booked. Then I got the call for a session on alto/soprano but unbelievably it was the same day as the gig so I had to turn it down, they never called me again."

  2001 saw new partnerships and new directions. Tony Bianco (left), an American drummer based in London, has developed something he calls Freebeat. Recordings took place during Summer 2001 and hopefully something will be available in the near future.

"It's a pulse with texture and colour supplied by guitar over which I play. That makes it sound simpler than it actually is. It's a rhythmic concept, we have to forget all the processes we have in the western style 4/4 time signatures, bar lengths etc. You have to try and free yourself from all that while you are playing, it's a difficult thing to do when you're so conditioned. Freebeat hinges on bass motifs that Tony has pre recorded and plays with, but it's irregular so nobody can get locked into the groove. It releases an area of creativity that is normally much harder work."

The partnership with Mark Hewins has also continued to flourish.

"We're using a kind of pre recorded pink noise created from sub harmonic drones. [pink noise is a psycho acoustic equivalent of white noise sweetened for human ears, often used as a signal to test speakers and set equalisation in theatres and other venues]. Mark has a couple of hours worth on a mini disc programmed to shift at various points, although it's out of our range of hearing you can feel the changes of resonance. It acts as a canvas for any kind of experimentation, it's been shown that this sort of thing can influence brainwave function and cause mood changes. Over this wash Mark utilises his synth guitar programming, his techniques of playing leave me incredibly free harmonically. It's still evolving and very exciting, we've only done it on a few occasions and the next step is to amalgamate that with Freebeat so that rhythmically and harmonically there's a new freedom. Myself, Mark and Tony Bianco have been exploring the possibilities. It's very liberating, I've been playing free music for decades but it has always entailed relating to what is going on around, with this I suddenly find myself relating but not having to think about it and to be really free, I can just concentrate on melody. It's a simple format made possible by the technology, through the sustain you can hold a whole block of texture and re layer it constantly. The effect was utilised by Messiaen [a 20th Century French composer who devised a unique form of orchestration to paint colours in sound] where minor shifts within a choral piece effect the resonance of the overall sound."

Elton is clearly very excited about the music being created by these processes, he feels it is the most exciting thing he has been involved with in years. It is still evolving, this music would not have been possible without the technology and Mark Hewins' ability to use it so creatively. The technology on Bar Torque now seems primitive in comparison.

As far as Elton Dean is concerned the music comes first, commercial considerations have never been allowed to stand in the way of his desire to improve and explore. This philosophy has certainly not made him a fortune but has produced an impressive body of work which I am convinced will continue to grow. Hopefully the newly discovered overseas markets will bear fruit. Many thanks to Elton for being so accommodating.

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