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In Korean Shamanism, a mudangis 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.
Mudang Rock, the revelatory new album from guitarist Henry Kaiser, uses the musical practices and magic of Korean Shamanism as the bedrock for an extraordinary voyage into improvisation and collaboration that reaches far beyond boundaries of genre. It is also the most profound document of Kaiser’s decades-long quest to fuse Korean traditions with his myriad interests in art and music, following his work on the acclaimed releases Invite the Spirit(1983), Sargeng(1990), KomunGuitar(1993), Invite the Spirit 2006, and Megasonic Chapel(2015).
Joining the guitarist are three of the most compelling figures in creative music today, including two musicians who’ve undertaken their own distinguished explorations of Korean sounds. Longtime fans of electric bassist Bill Laswell, a Downtown icon whose credits extend from the boldest names in the avant-garde to pop and rock stars, will recall his band SXL, which combined jazz and world-music heavyweights with the Korean percussion ensemble SamulNori.
Australia’s Simon Barker, a fiercely gifted drummer and educator working in jazz and experimental music, helped bring Korea’s rhythmic history to a global audience as the focal point of the award-winning documentary Intangible Asset No. 82. Directed by Emma Franz (Bill Frisell: A Portrait), it captures Barker’s abiding obsession with Korean drumming and follows him throughout his inspiring journey to meet the reclusive shaman and master musician Kim Seok-chul. Filling out the quartet is Rudresh Mahanthappa, among the most decorated saxophonists in current jazz and a revered composer and bandleader of rare cross-cultural insights.
The ensemble’s singular chemistry results in an ecstatic and surprising kaleidoscope of sonics and improvisation, interweaving Korean shamanism with the cellular structural approach of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics, the Carnatic tradition of South India, the Afrocentric expressionism of Miles Davis’ Agharta/Pangaea period, and much more. “One very special thing about Mudang Rock is that it combines more elements than are generally put together in any sort of fusion,” Kaiser says, before naming further influences like Stockhausen, Captain Beefheart, British free improvisation from the 1970s, Albert Ayler, late-period John Coltrane, and in addition to the Korean rhythms, drumming traditions from Polynesia and Melanesia.
Let no early notes foster expectations, because they're sure to be dashed by music that keeps shifting shape and slithering out of reach. Initiated by guitarist Henry Kaiser, the project uses traditional Korean music to underpin seven improvisations. Kaiser assembled Sydney's Simon Barker (the ultimate western improviser incorporating Korean drumming language), bassist Bill Laswell (whose whole career – including touring with Korean drummers – proves no music is off-limits) and brilliant New York alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.
Usually Barker establishes rhythmic domains, within which the others freely improvise. Kaiser often lays out, only to make hair-raising entries: heavily treated guitar delivering lines that live in such a parallel universe as make Mahanthappa's explosions of warmth seem mainstream. Laswell, meanwhile, has a way of finding the least likely solution to a given musical problem. But Barker is the music's core, and his playing sounds as organic as a garden of rhythmic and textural ideas. It's by no means all wild and woolly: guests include Soo Yeon Lyuh playing haegeum (two-string fiddle) on the plaintive Emphyrio Salpurri – although even this veers into uncharted territory.
JOHN SHAND SMH
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