Hugh Hopper
Elton Dean

By Hugh Hopper
Feb. 22, 2006

I first played with Elton in 1969, when he joined Soft Machine. After we both left the band - him in '72 and me in '73 - we continued to work together in various projects - Hugh Hopper Monster Band ('74), Hopper, Dean, Tippett, Gallivan ('76-'77), Carla Bley Orchestra ('77), Soft Head, Soft Heap ('78-'80), Equipe Out ('84-'87), In Cahoots ('85-'88), Softworks (2002-4), Soft Machine Legacy ('04-'05), Soft Bounds ('04-'05), as well as occasional recordings together and improvised gigs.

Elton had a unique sax voice, whether on alto sax or on his trademark saxello - a vintage instrument like a curved soprano sax. He could be aggressive, playing free and wild, and he could be soft and lyrical when the music demanded it. His first love was totally free improvised music, but he was also a creative composer. I have played his tune Seven For Lee in several bands, with him and in my own bands too. His big band, Ninesense, featured some of his dynamic arrangements for other instruments.

We spent many days on tour together in Europe, USA and Japan, often sharing hotel rooms. As a person, he was humorous, and with a taste for the grotesque. He loved that side of movies and books. Grotesque characters, conspiracies... He was faithful to his musician friends but had little respect for anyone else in the music "industry", particularly if he thought they were getting money that he considered as belonging to the musicians.

For the last few years of his life, he suffered more and more from cirrhosis of the liver (he once told me he had been drinking continuously since he was 19) and the last two years he was getting weaker and weaker physically, although his playing was as strong and creative as ever. To hear him play you would not have guessed he was ill. I last played with him in France in December 2005, three gigs with Soft Machine Legacy. Our last gig together was in Nice. Elton's last ever gig. A few days before we had played in Paris, at the New Morning and the performance was filmed for a DVD, complete with interviews and backstage shots. It will be a poignant and fitting memorial for him.

There will be homage gigs to him at the Triton in Paris May 27, and somewhere in London too.

© Hugh Hopper 2006 | Feb. 22, 2006