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Bill Shoemaker

It is a creepy reality of the jazz and improvised music communities. No news travels faster than that of the passing of an important artist. Even on Christmas, the news of Derek Bailey’s death pinged around the planet via emails by the time night had fallen in North America. It is a syndrome that breeds more cynicism with every loss.

The tipping point for me was hearing about the death of Elton Dean within hours of his passing on February 7. With the heaps of tributes to Bailey only recently subsided, my cynicism took the form of speculating how Dean, who succumbed to heart and liver ailments at 60, would be remembered. Would it be as a gifted bandleader, composer and improviser? As a member of Soft Machine? Or the guy who supplied the “Elton” for Elton John?

I also reflexively thought about the coverage of Dean’s passing by identifying an over/under: a lengthy, adroit John Fordham obit in The Guardian (which, indeed, was published on the 10th). Anything less would be outrageous; much more than that seemed unlikely. I thought The Wire would be good for two pages max; 10 minutes from Jazz on 3, tops. Anything more than a mention here and there in the US would be surprising.

This assessment had nothing to do with my regard for Dean’s music. It has everything to do with the press’ evaluation in real time of his passing as news. And, in this Internet-driven environment, news has a rapidly shortening shelf life.

I say “Dean’s music” because I don’t claim to have known him. The only occasion I met him was the 2002 edition of Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon, where he performed with Keith Tippett’s Tapestry Orchestra and participated in a panel discussion with other British musicians that I had the honor of moderating. That, and a couple of short chats in passing is the sum total of my personal interactions with Dean. My impression of him was that he was irascibly funny.

My assessment of Dean’s music is that it is more important to the development of British jazz and improvised music than is regularly acknowledged. Dean’s is a sprawling body of work that really has to be considered in its totality for this position to make much sense. The problem is that a lot of Dean’s best work is unavailable on CD.

One of the best of these recordings is Boundaries, a 1980 date with Tippett, cornetist Marc Charig, bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Louis Moholo. Produced by Steve Lake for JAPO (the “Jazz by Post” subsidiary of ECM), it seemed like a natural for The Circle With The Hole In The Middle and an apt vehicle for a tribute. Three paragraphs into the piece, I made some queries for photos. One of my contacts tipped me to ECM’s intentions to reissue Boundaries in April, bundled with other long available JAPO gems like Globe Unity Orchestra’s Compositions.

This had the makings of a sweet story. Anyone who has read Fordham’s piece on Dean surely noticed the reference to Lake’s ardent comments to Fordham about Dean’s Ninesense at a gig approximately 30 years ago. Anyone who knows anything about bringing a CD to market knows that Lake was working on the reissue of Boundaries for months, if not years prior to Dean’s death. The fan prevailed. Well, to an extent. Boundaries and the other JAPO CDs will be released only in Japan.


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