7/26/2014

Walter Isaacson's review of A Spy Among Friends, the latest study of British double agent Kim Philby, is itself a study in meta-narrative. Early on, Isaacson tells us that author Ben Macintyre has no new "startling revelations" about Philby, who led a notorious ring of Cambridge-educated spies and distinguished himself as the best Soviet mole ever to penetrate the U.K.'s intelligence leadership. But the story reads like a novel, says Isaacson, with a nod to McIntyre's impressive record of "nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery."

We learn from a footnote that Isaacson wrote biographies of Einstein, Kissinger, and Steve Jobs, the last credit immediately conjuring the iconic image of Silicon Valley's most enigmatic figure staring pensively from the cover. Despite this impressive record, he stays out of Macintyre's story, and this is how it should be, the reviewer as invisible force moving a resistible object.

Except Isaacson is one of those polymaths we love to read about. Currently CEO of the Aspen Institute, he has been chairman and CEO of CNN, and the managing editor of TIME magazine, making that publication's 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

This is good stuff.

Isaacson goes on to clarify Mcintyre's theme, explaining that the narrative of Philby's relationship with fellow Cantabrigian Nicholas Elliott runs deeper than your ordinary spy story, that those chosen to grace the playing fields of Eton learn early on "to shield themselves from vulnerability...to mask their feelings for one another with jokes, cricket-watching, drinking..."

Philby was one of The Cambridge Four, a group recruited by the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. Isaacson does not mention the feelings two of the other members had for each other. Anthony Blunt, who became Queen Elizabeth's royal art advisor while passing secrets to the Russians, had an ongoing affair with Guy Burgess. This was one of two habits they picked up at university, the other being an unbridled commitment to Communism.  

The review ends with an anecdote about John LeCarré's 1986 interview of Elliott, during which he asked if Elliott, a loyal member of the British intelligence group MI6, had ever considered having Philby killed: "To that Elliott gave a disapproving response. 'My dear chap,' he said. 'One of us.'”

Isaacson's tag line - "What does it really mean to be 'one of us'?" - resonates, perhaps louder than intended. He will publish another book about Silicon Valley in October, a study of innovators in technology. It's safe to say that his research uncovered at least one modern-day Kim Philby, an executive or academician freely passing digital secrets to a foreign power in the guise of his employ. The only question is, did he write about it?     

7/12/2014

Begin AgainFifty years ago, the Beatles consolidated their already dominant brand by starring in A Hard Day's Night, the brilliant work by director Richard Lester that straddles the Social Realist and British New Wave schools of film. Until then, pop music had been filmed as the extension of male charisma. From the homoerotic machinations of Jailhouse Rock (no threat to Elvis Presley's career, the male bonding trope later reprised in G.I. Blues) to the saccharine beach party films starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (e.g. - Beach Blanket Bingo), the male musician qua movie star extended his vinyl antics unscathed to the big screen. For better or worse, they were our heroes.

Then Ringo, the anti-hero, captured our hearts. His struggle with identity became an insidious plot point buried in a sequence of infectious tunes and catchy one-liners (John Lennon: "Hey he's reading the Queen...that's an in joke, you know.") We saw the angst behind the fame, the Liverpudlian sense of dislocation, of alienation in the metropolis.  

Keira Knightley plays the latest incarnation of this well-trodden character, a disturbingly photogenic singer-songwriter whose caddish boyfriend-collaborator first feeds from and then genuflects before her tentative accomplishments. Her character Greta (we catch a whiff of Wagner) arrives in New York City with Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon5) to promote his new album, which includes songs co-written by the two of them. Through a mélange of jump cuts and flashbacks, we see the inevitable arc of betrayal, survival, rescue and redemption. When Dave returns from a West Coast junket with label execs, he plays a newly written song for Greta, whose preternatural sense of the jilted collaborator (culminating in her world-class slap to his unsuspecting face) forces him to admit that the song's dedicated to Mim, his conveniently Asian publicity person. Greta decamps for the living room couch of her friend Steve (James Corden), who cajoles her into performing a song one night during his set at a convenient hipster bar in Manhattan.  

Enter the dragon, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a washed-up indie label exec who's just split with his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, the former Mos Def). From the edges of an alcoholic stupor, Dan hears Greta singing over the crowd and imagines the band behind her, animated instruments played by invisible musicians in a scene that might have succumbed to the weight of its own kitsch, had we not already been seduced by Greta. Our unconscious anti-Valkyrie eventually gives in to Dan's insistence, recording a "live" album of her work with the help of Steve, a group of Dominican waifs hired to silence their street antics, and several professional musicians paid by Cee Lo, an early client of Dan's whose abject gratitude, seemingly at odds with the real world of music, funds this quixotic venture.   

In this new world order, where the black characters Cee Lo and Saul control the economics, we see a different set of actors than the Beatles, whose irreverence for the ruling class arguably proved their greatest asset. Here, the downtrodden have become the ruling class, and the quotidian hipster faces anonymity instead of certain fame.   

Greta's success elicits a redemptive entreaty from Dan, a record deal from Saul, and the ancillary rehabilitation of Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan's alienated daughter. In the bargain, Dan's ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), survives her initial antagonist role (hastily delineated in Dan's knee-jerk narrative). Greta's last-minute decision to release the album on the Internet is somewhat plausible, the wrath of a real-world executive much easier to imagine than the tractable Saul, who smiles good-naturedly and exits, stage right. (We can only guess how Tommie Mattola would have handled it.)

The backstory to this film has yet to be resolved. Yasiin Bey was recently barred from touring the United States. In the real world, Jay-Z does business with Russian billionaires. On the screen, the former Mos Def plays an indie exec struggling to keep his company, and his career afloat. His character faces issues of economic survival, not political suppression. Once again, it's tough to find the line between fiction and reality. 

Mos Def

Hard Day's Night

7/6/2014

Cam BrownThe Ornette Coleman album The Shape of Jazz to Come begins with "Lonely Woman," a plaintive tune featuring four instruments whose smoky voices obscure the absence of a colleague. As in Prince's pop hit of a later generation, "When Doves Cry," the unconventional orchestration tightens the remaining ensemble. Prince omitted the bass, replacing its harmonic and rhythmic character with his guitar and a layer of percussion. Ornette omitted the piano, creating an historic sound that disrupted, then captivated the world of jazz. 

On the Fourth of July, Cameron Brown continued this tradition by taking the stage at the Cornelia Street Cafe with his group, Danny's Calypso. This ensemble consisted of Brown on bass, Jason Rigby on tenor, Lisa Parrott on alto & baritone, Russ Johnson on trumpet, and Tony Jefferson on drums. For nearly an hour, they produced textures and voicings with the compressed complexity of a pen and ink drawing, or a gouache. That is to say, the reductive absence of piano achieved a sharper impression, a space of air whose cubic footage shimmered with weight.

As he mentioned early on, Cam Brown played with the late Dannie Richmond, a drummer best known for his work with Charles Mingus. Brown and Richmond were part of the George Adams quartet, which also featured pianist Don Pullen. Neither Richmond nor Adams lived to be 60.

It is tempting to call Cam Brown a successor to Mingus. He plays with similar tautness, showing a cellist's dexterity in the high register, navigating angular melodies and double stops over wide intervals. But just when the listener makes this comparison, Brown will drop a smoky passage that evokes the work of Paul Chambers on Kind of Blue, or pluck a kinetic run reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison.

Yes, Cam Brown does play on the level of Miles and 'Trane, but with a unique personal style. His Baby Suite begins with a figure played in near-unison by horns and bass. The compression of seconds and thirds gradually expanding outward drives the melody into improvisatory fragments that need no underpinning, that would in fact suffer from any continuo. Trumpet and saxes converse in twos and threes, linking the note clusters like brush strokes. The concise austerity of Jefferson's drumming permits Brown to wander the registers, linking melody with rhythm, then speaking in solo.

Cam Brown has worked with Don Cherry, Donald Byrd, George Shearing, Chet Baker and Dewey Redman, among others. He has appeared on more than 80 recordings. The Danny's Calypso date was part of a three-night stand at the Cornelia Street Cafe that featured a duo with vocalist Sheila Jordan the night before, and on the following night, a performance of Cameron Brown and the Hear and Now. These were all moments in jazz history, and those that occur in the future should not be missed.       

Dannie Richmond Plays Charles Mingus

Live at Montmartre 

The Social Publisher