Elton Dean & Sophia Domancich


By Ken Waxman
August 28, 2005

Following several years of releasing disappointing quasi-fusion CDs in the company of noodling guitarists, distracted keyboardists and over-ripe drummers, veteran British saxophonist Elton Dean has finally turned out a CD worthy of his reputation. The secret ingredient here is French pianist Sophia Domancich, who partners him in this, their first-ever duo disc. They aren’t strangers however since she has worked with Dean on-and-off in different bands over the past 20 years.

An accomplished saxello, soprano and alto saxophonist, who sticks to the curved horn on Avant, Dean has a long history as an advanced jazzer, having been part of bands led by pianists Chris McGregor and Keith Tippet, to pick two, and recorded a memorable CD with American trombonist Roswell Rudd a decade ago. In the non-jazz world, however, his most important association is with Canterbury ProgRockers the Soft Machine that lasted from 1968 to 1972, when he added improv credence to the band’s sound.

That stint has been as much a curse as a blessing, however. These days, when he isn’t exploring unstructured Free Jazz with his peers, he’s often involved with third, fourth or fifth generation fusion bands that take the Soft Machine as their starting point. With jazz-rock already an anachronism within a couple of years of its late 1960s birth, these new-fusion bands, whether they include other ex-Softs or not, usually substitute chops for thought.

Oddly enough, Domancich, a graduate of Paris’s Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, has also worked in Continental fusion bands with other Canterbury scene veterans. More importantly, however, she has also followed a jazz and Free Music career. She was in France’ Orchestre National du Jazz , played with local experimenters like bassist Joëlle Léandre and drummer Simon Goubert, and helmed an exceptional chamber-jazz quintet session, Pentacle (Sketch SKE 333032) in 2002.

Avant, recorded live at an Italian concert last year, is closer to that CD and other free-floating advanced sax-and-piano meetings than any Canterbury retread. It will likely disappoint as many fusionoids as it exhilarates free-jazzers. Here shorter ascending and descending fantasias – and a two-minute detour – bookend “No Bother”, the CD’s one- second-shorter-than-28-minutes centrepiece.

Following a Domancich introduction that drives jagged textures from strummed internal strings, she shapes thunderous, legato accents with tremolo pedal motions, reverberating strings and wood in such a way that timbres seem to bounce off the piano’s soundboard and speaking length. Meanwhile Dean uses false fingered squeaks to highlight his pitch vibrations, breaking his trills up into split tone nodes and extensive glottal punctuation.

Challenged, this leads the pianist to unleash block chords of unparalleled architectural equilibrium, as Dean continues to roll out long-limbed phrases, breaking them up into smaller and smaller particles, until his reed discourse turns legato. Light-fingered patterning from Domancich helps mute, then mask his tone, and soon she’s playing a short nocturne of classical-style arpeggios – with brisk lapidary accents that resemble a half-remembered Broadway ballad.

After Dean returns with a newly romantic breathy tone, sustained pedal pressure from the piano help her notes ring. Subsequently, this hardening of the keyboard output causes him to double tongue and pitch vibrate his reed. With his notes now both staccato and fortissimo, her chording leads him to an atonal resolution of the piece. Cramming together as many notes as he can in a phrase, Dean’s shrill coda is a diaphragm-vibrated series of snorts and glisses. In response, Domancich roughly pummels the ivory finish on the keys,

“Les Portes-En-Ré” begins with the same intensity, as Dean trills split tones and Domancich clobbers the keys warningly until he moderates his output to a muted cadence, allowing her enough space to unspool curlicues of speedier, impressionistic fills. As the piece climaxes with portamento chording from the pianist, the reedist’s stolid response involves concentrated tonal slurs.

“Avant-Après, which starts off the recital, features long-lined reed arpeggios, burbling piano chords plus echoing speaking length strokes from Domancich. Soon, Dean’s harsh reed-biting intensity contracts to miniature beeps as the pianist alters her output by strumming adagio harmonies with a conservatoire chamber music tinge. As the altoist side-slips to a more intense, penetrating vibrato, Domancich creates gently sloping systematic chording from the bass strings that seems to move to its own internal rhythm. Providing the cushioning octaves upon which he can strain and slur freak notes, she terminates the improvisation with repeated rubato cadences.

Casual Dean fans who only identify him with the Soft Machine and 1970s fusion may be disappointed with this cerebral effort. But there are plenty of CDs extant where he does his jazz-rock thing. More committed jazzers will be dazzled by Avant, however, and, with any luck, be encouraged to seek out other CDs under Domancich’s leadership.