‘Underground London’ Dazzles with Its Scope and Anti-Establishment Music

Cherry Red issues a gargantuan collection of anti-establishment music associated with the 1960s London counterculture, a movement which challenged the norms and conventions of mainstream society by drinking from the well of psychedelia, free jazz, Beat poetry, musique concrete, electronics, and minimalism.

Underground London: The Art Music and Free Jazz That Inspired a Cultural Revolution
Various Artists
Cherry Red
22 May 2020

The mid 1960’s counter-culture arose from a loose amalgamation of avant-garde seers and kindred spirits fired by the fervour of America’s Beat poets, the squall of free jazz, Indian music’s healing force and the abstractions of the modern classical scene. This gaggle of refuseniks, bohemians and innovators responded to a thirst for change and experiment which amounted to an artistic revolution in re-drawing the possibilities of sound itself.

Taking its cue from a socio-political-aesthetic revolution instigated by such epochal moments as the London ‘happenings’ and The UFO Club and culminating in the Summer of Love, Cherry Tree Records has compiled Underground London: The Art Music and Free Jazz that Inspired a Cultural Revolution, a luxury-length evocation of this strange, inspiring and restlessly creative time and milieu.

Underground London roams far and wide for its mission statement, taking in such luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Luciano Berio, Sun Ra, the Dudley Moore Trio, and Beat Generation figurehead Allen Ginsberg amongst many others. Spiky, eloquent and impassioned, it’s a remarkable document that serves as a panorama of the diverse influences within the capital that propelled the winds of change that altered society forever.

The compilation kicks off with the menace and joy of Ornette Coleman Quartet’s “W.R.U.” from 1962’s Ornette! album. Ostensibly a forbidding, soul-chilling slab of free jazz, this surprisingly accommodates some Dizzy Gillespie-inspired bop phrases and lashings of catchy R&B honk amidst the freewheeling atonality. This is juxtaposed with Beat icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Dog” poem, a touching comparison between a canine and an everyman rooted in a free verse that lends itself to the syncopated swing of jazz.

Leaping out of the traps like a banshee is the thrilling “Out of This World” by the John Coltrane Quartet, a mesmeric modal mantra in 6/8 time that perfectly showcases the intuitive interplay between the leader’s raspy, cranked up blowing and the dynamic, limpid chording of McCoy Tyner’s piano runs. Eric Dolphy’s “Left Alone”, culled from his often overlooked 1962 date with Booker Little, “Far Cry”, posits a mournful tenderness that may wrong-foot those familiar with his iconic, angular and modernist masterpiece, Out to Lunch. It’s not avant-garde as such, but there’s a palpable sense of Dolphy and cohorts stretching outside of the standard bop format: the sonorous, butterfly-like flute solo by Dolphy is worth the price of the album on its own.

The Hungarian-born avant-garde composer Ligeti’s dense, fog-like “Atmospheres”, made famous in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, prizes sustained chords, which develop tension through pitch modulations, over orthodox melodic structures. Its uncanny otherness finds accord with Miles Davis’s sumptuous minor-key modal blues, “Flamenco Sketches”, where pianist Bill Evans ushers the listener with a luminous four bar piano introduction and the trumpeter spreads an autumnal disquietude with his lyrical, mute horn at the conclusion.

The opening disc finds room for eccentric cosmic jazz pioneer Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s jet-propelled blast of blurting psychedelia, “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus”, and the slinky, playful lounge-jazz of Annie Ross’s “Bellini”; here there’s a textural sympathy between the singer’s straining to sculpt vocal conversation out of poetry and the Arkestra’s cacophonic chafing at the outer edges of bebop.

The second disc commences with “Jesus Maria” by Jimmy Giuffre 3, a mesmerising early 1960s recording notable for the drummer-less trio’s ethereal use of space and classical-style counterpoint in a jazz trio context. Ravi Shankar recorded his Western debut of Hindustani classical music, Three Ragas, in London in 1956, and “Raga Jog”, an evening Raga expressing “the yearning of a longing soul”, is included here in all its incantatory, cathartic and trance-inducing glory; Shankar’s lengthy vamps over an ambient haze of tambura chords will resonate with lovers of modal jazz.

The Jamaican-born jazz maestro Joe Harriott is represented by the deep, rich and rounded “Pictures”, a wistful free jazz cut that almost collapses under the weight of its off-kilter mood whilst summoning ghosts of melody to roam free. Yusef Lateef’s jazz evergreen, “Morning”, is a spiritual, Eastern-tinged lament distinguished by the choked lyricism of the saxophonist’s assured, probing and controlled expression over poetic piano, delicately brushed drums and a rolling, non-Western percussive undertow.

For lovers of growling anguish there’s Albert Ayler’s “Moanin”, whilst Charles Mingus cooks up an orchestral storm on “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, the title track of a 1956 album that shook up the world of jazz by dispensing with written charts for each player and prefiguring 1960’s free-ness. The Dudley Moore Trio’s exquisite “Theme From Beyond the Fringe” will satiate lovers of a more restrained and rhapsodic style. Here Moore’s lightness of touch and flecks of Peterson and Garner are manna from heaven.

The British electronic producer and experimentalist Daphne Oram was a leading light of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and electronic music, and her collaboration with Desmond Briscoe, “The Ocean”, deftly joins the dots between musique concrete and a prototype for ambient music. Jack Kerouac’s readings from On the Road and Visions of Cody furnish the record with ballast and a zippy internalisation of bebop rhythms.

The third disc of this collection is dominated by samples from the fringes of modern composition – John Cage, Stockhausen, Luciano Berio – and missives from the gatekeepers of the emergent new jazz as typified by Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Third Stream” version of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” turns us full cycle, back to where we started; the MJQ were a steadfast presence throughout the tumult of huge social and musical evolution in the 1960’s but never lost their swing or their interest in expanding jazz’s scope. Rollins’ “The Bridge” is an exhilarating jam, with the saxophonist a model of concision as he races to complement Pete La Roca’s invigorating kit playing and Jim Hall’s crisp guitar.

Cecil Taylor Trio’s breath-taking raid on “Love For Sale” demonstrates the yin to Moore’s keyboard yang: all fierce, muscular density of playing and headlong ingenuity. John Cage and David Tudor’s electronic experiment dovetails elegantly with Berio’s labyrinthine “Visage”, a folk-horror-inflected piece of surreal concrete which surely informed Broadcast and the Focus Group’s 2009 collaboration, and Aldous Huxley’s paean to mescalin and the joy of psychedelics.

Taken as a compilation, the iconoclastic sounds collated on Underground London don’t always cohere on common ground but they do signify a certain, distinctive sensibility: a sallying forth into uncharted waters that values a sense of adventure and eschews musical and cultural borders. Its sheer sweep and frame of reference offer a welcome reminder of a crazily fertile era of cross-pollination and radical innovation.

RATING 8 / 10