Henry Kaiser/Simon Barker/Bill Laswell/Rudresh Mahanthappa – Mudang Rock (2018)

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Followers of experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser already know that he’s got a thing for the mudang Korean spiritual music and he periodically indulges in form explicitly, beginning with 1983’s Invite The Spirit. Mudang Rock might just be his most fulfilling journey down that road.

That could be because Kaiser had convened a rather sympathetic collection of ace progressive musicians to help him carry out his unique vision of fusion: bassist Bill Laswell, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and drummer Simon Barker. And still you might ask, what is mudang? In Korean spiritual lore, a mudang is “a type of shaman who has become possessed by a god, called a momju. Mudang perform fortune telling using their spiritual powers derived from their possession. They preside over a kut (rite) involving song and dance.”

Knowledge about Korean Shamanism isn’t required to appreciate what’s going on here; in the end, this is about living spiritually in the moment and the Korean tradition is merely a vehicle for getting there. So hearing Mahanthappa’s turns on alto sax on “Orange Kut” might sound Carnatic because that’s what he does so well, but it’s definitely exotic and inspired from within. And Kaiser chooses to expresses himself with a wah-wah that some might think is Hendrix-driven but listen closer: there are notes there Jimi would have probably never used in that setting. The Laswell/Barker rhythm section isn’t generating Western time signatures; Barker metes out beats to chant along to and Laswell spiders his way around the harmony. Ultimately, anything composed was just meant to serve as signposts, there’s no outwardly close adherence to structure.

What is heard on “Orange Kut” and the remainder of the tracks isn’t traditional Korean music, but a mixture of experimental rock, highly improvisational jazz and world fusion stretching from Africa to India. “Logarhythm” calls to mind both those southern Indian strains and the Afro-centric funk of mid-70s Miles, reflected in Mahanthappa’s ‘bird calls’ and also Kaiser’s Yo! Miles excursions. Laswell is wandering free like Kaiser and Mahanthappa, but also show his unsurpassed ability to do so while holding down the low end. Meanwhile, Barker’s percussive approach to an angular rhythm that establishes the character of the song again defies categorization. For the first seven minutes of “Yongari vs Bulgasari”, Kaiser plugs his guitar into an overdriven amp goes into full freak-out mode with only spare support from Barker before passing off the baton to a more ruminative Mahanthappa. Barker later drives the quartet to a near-frenzy with his quickening and hardening pulses.

Barker by the way is a noted academic, a PhD in jazz studies who lectures at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and his twenty years spent studying traditional Korean music and adapting those learnings to a drum kit are showcased alone at the start of “Silappadikaram Pacifica.” About a minute and a half in Mahanthappa joins him and two minutes later the duo become a trio when Kaiser enters the fray. The master percussionist again holds a master class during the opening minutes of “The Final Ritual.” When Kaiser goes off into total freedom, Mahanthappa falls into a groove with Laswell and Barker, later switching sides over to the guitarist.

The Korean exotica hinted at elsewhere becomes more direct on “Emphyrio Salpuri” because of Soo Yeon Lyuh’s haegum, a traditional Korean string instrument that resembles a fiddle. It’s not a very loud instrument, so the rest of the band stays largely in the background — save for Kaiser’s occasional feedback squalls — to provide Lyuh the space needed in which to roam. “The Story Changes” is initially another sparsely decorated track, where Tania Chen’s piano and Danielle DeGruttola’s cello is joined by Kaiser on acoustic guitar, but discreetly accumulates momentum. DeGruttola takes center stage, shared with Kaiser now on an electric axe loaded up with effects and then Mahanthappa brings a soulful element to a song that flows like a natural life cycle.

Henry Kaiser has long found spiritual fulfillment playing music informed by the ancient songs of Korean Shamanism. This time he finds further fulfillment in the comradery of musicians who like him understand the power of the mudang. Mudang Rock will drop September 14, 2018 through Fractal Music.

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