Dean first gained acclaim as a member of the Keith Tippett Group, led by the English pianist and featuring the horn section of Dean, Marc Charig and Nick Evans, in 1969. Later that year, Dean, Charig and Evans were hired by Soft Machine to augment their core trio. After touring as a septet, the band was trimmed down to a quintet, then a quartet. This resulted in what many consider the classic" Soft Machine line-up of Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, which recorded Third (1970) and Fourth (1971) for CBS.
Dean left Soft Machine after 1972's Fifth to devote his time to his own group, Just Us, and various jazz-oriented line-ups, many of them featuring Tippett. Over the years however, he remained associated with the Soft Machine family (also known as the Canterbury scene"), often in the company of bassist Hugh Hopper, while leading his own acoustic jazz quartets and quintets.
In the past few years Dean had again been involved in a variety of Soft Machine-derived line-ups: SoftWorks with Hugh Hopper, Allan Holdsworth and John Marshall; Soft Machine Legacy with Etheridge replacing Holdsworth; Soft Bounds, with Hopper and French jazzers Sophia Domancich and Simon Goubert; and the French-based PolySoft tribute project, again featuring Hopper. Soft Machine Legacy recorded its debut album in September, and the band were looking forward to supporting it with a series of live performances; a live DVD, recorded in Paris last December, is also set for release later this year.