Elton Dean is undoubtedly one of the most talented and respected musicians
to have emerged from this genre we call the Canterbury scene. Nowadays a
major player on the European jazz scene, he has been a professional
musician since his late teens with an energy that shows no signs of
"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
"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
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
"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
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, sevenths, ninths,
elevenths, 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 Babbington.
"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. 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, an astonishing drummer. 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
"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. It hasn't actually been out that long, the tapes
were hanging around for years, yet a lot of it still sounds pretty
contemporary, unclassifiable really."
Mark Hewins is a versatile and innovative guitar player from what you might
call the second generation of Canterbury musicians, inspired by the
"Mark has always had a high output of official and unofficial releases,
tape only stuff. I did a duo with him at the Jazz Café that was recorded,
Musart put it out on tape only, there has been some talk recently of a CD
release. We'll probably record again, we always work well together even if
we haven't played for a while."
In the early eighties Phil Miller's composing talents were maturing, his
adventurous material though is perhaps sometimes suited to a larger group
of musicians than economics will allow. The current sextet probably comes
closest to being able to fully recreate the sounds conceived in Phil
"The original In Cahoots was me, Pip, Phil Miller and Richard Sinclair.
Richard is a brilliant natural musician, he doesn't read music or anything
like that. 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."
During 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.
Paul Rutherford, an uncompromising explorer, constantly pushing his
instrument beyond its recognised boundaries, Annie Whitehead, versatile,
schooled in jazz but happy to cross over into funk, reggae, ska etc. and
Roswell Rudd, 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
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 very recent
recording by ED's new trio featuring Newsense bass player Roberto
Bellatalla and regular 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
"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 quite recently 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 new trio album was recorded in Mark Hewins' front room, that's where
he has his studio set up and it's 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 might even go out and
do a few 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."
ED's output these days is high, several CD releases a year. There is
clearly a core audience out there for improvised music, but how big?
"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, also companies like Voiceprint will take
anything of mine and put it out. It is how I make my living."
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've been running Jazz Rumours for nearly eight years, starting out in a
local pub then moving to the Vortex on Sunday nights. All the music is
improvised, usually played by a regular squad of musicians. Last year we
began inviting guest players, mainly Europeans plus the occasional American
passing through, but it hasn't really worked out as I'd hoped. 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."
ED's views on how jazz should be presented are uncompromising.
"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 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."
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 and made him a major player on
the European improvised music scene. Many thanks to Elton for a friendly
and informative interview.
An updated version of this interview and article on Stephen's own website can be seen
issue 20 - the issue that never happened!
- elton dean interview by stephen yarwood