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Henry Jacobs - Around the World with Henry Jacobs

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Artist: Henry Jacobs

Album: Around the World with Henry Jacobs

Label: Important

Review date: Jun. 25, 2010


Henry Jacobs - "Secrets of the Sounds" (Around the World with Henry Jacobs)


Built from sound manipulation, ethnic folkways, musique concrete experimentation, spoken-word conceptual humor and socio-cultural satire, Henry Jacobs’s radio collages from the mid- 20th century offer an idiosyncratic but nonetheless vivid taste of the American creative frontier during the beat movement and counterculture years; a manically creative west coast–hipster exploration of possibilities at the FM radio fringes of electronic mass media.

Jacobs started in radio in Chicago, but the art, music and poetry scene of 1950s San Francisco called him, and it turned out to be an ideal and receptive environment for what he would do for the next two decades. So what was he doing? Well, using tape recorders to capture, process and compose with sound; improvising jazz bands, Afro-Cuban percussion ensembles, and city soundscapes; manipulating pitch, cutting tape; and messing around with analog synthesizers. Added to this mix were fake improvised interviews and conversations with the likes of supposed ethnic music scholars, strange street people and beatnik jazz poets. The quiet kick to these segments often came from the slow, subtly developing revelation that hipsters and squares were often equally clueless, confused and obtuse in their perceptions of the world. On a deeper level, there was a disturbing sense that people could not actually communicate with each other — as if everybody was speaking a slightly different language.

The Henry Jacobs legend is full of missing tapes and forgotten, buried archives. The selections released here were apparently dug up by Jacobs recently in his backyard. No dates or sources are given, but judging from cultural references and various argots, the material seems to range from the 1950s through the 1970s. (The bonus disc is a you-are-there 1957 recording of Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading poems to jazz accompaniment in a small San Francisco club.).

All the aforementioned traits and techniques are on display in the collection; one can hear in the comedy segments a sort of beat version of Bob and Ray’s cool radio conceptualism with some Lenny Bruce rawness thrown in, the whole thing unfolding with the attention to sound-as-art and mind-bending evocation that eventually blossomed in the psychedelic radio plays of Firesign Theatre.

Behind much of the humor, however (and in the pieces that are not overtly humorous), it seems that there is something philosophical at the heart of Jacobs’s expression and experimentation, a rough beauty and revelation to be found in the way disparate sounds and paths of perception can stumble together into something new — something, perhaps, just as surprisingly transcendent as it is absurd and transitory.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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