Here’s Four Powerhouse Musicians and a Holy Ghost on ‘Mudang Rock’

Guitarist extraordinaire Henry Kaiser assembles a crack band based around Simon Barker's Korean rhythmic skills.

Mudang Rock
Simon Barker, Henry Kaiser, Bill Laswell, Rudresh Mahanthappa
Fractal Music
14 September 2018

Aesop once said that “a man is known by the company he keeps”. When I got my hands on a physical copy of Mudang Rock, I recognized three of the four names stretching across the bottom of the cover. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is caught in that sweet spot between rising star and established statesman of post-bop jazz. Henry Kaiser is the court jester of the electric guitar and bassist/producer Bill Laswell started becoming the Kevin Bacon of modern music at least 20 years ago.

So what can we make of percussionist Simon Barker? Keeping steady time for an improvisational ensemble is hard enough, but providing a sturdy anchor for the likes of Kaiser, Laswell, and Mahanthappa must be intimidating as hell, so we know that he is equipped with a lot of nerve. We can also rule out any purity of genre on his part, given that Kaiser and Laswell have spent a great deal of their career jumping over various musical borders. Even Mahanthappa, probably the most conventional musician here by default, can’t help but test new waters on a regular basis. So it would be surprising if Simon Barker showed a stubborn loyalty to just one genre.

Do just a little bit of reading, and you’ll find that not only does Simon Barker hold a Ph.D. in jazz studies, but he also spent about 20 years studying Korean rhythms, a little trait that served as the creative spark for the Mudang Rock session. “This music is inspired by rhythms and Spirit of the Korean shamanic tradition” is the only bit of information offered inside the CD’s digipak. If you need some clarification, Mudang Rock‘s press release puts it pretty succinctly: “In Korean Shamanism, 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.”

So, a shaman, possessed by a god, singing, and dancing — what exactly does that sound like? About as crazy as it all seems, to be honest. Barker, whose drum kit, I can only assume, includes percussion pieces of Eastern origin, leads the charge on opening cut “Orange Kut” with plenty of clangs and smashes. Laswell teases out notes from his fretless bass and Mahanthappa ascends his register with perfectly placed staccatos. Then comes Kaiser. This is a musician who is capable of making his guitar sound like a malfunctioning computer at one moment, a police siren the next, and then just might settle on some Hendrix-esque shredding. For “Orange Kut”, he lunges into the first option.

The cheeky title to “Logarhythm” is a nice fit for Barker’s cyclical tappings and Mahanthappa’s looping figure. At just over nineteen minutes, “Yongari vs. Bulgasari” certainly doesn’t start out as some rhythm section powerhouse. At first, it sounds like Kaiser is just doing some wool gathering while Barker wonders aloud about when he should enter. The ambivalence continues as Kaiser hands the torch to Mahanthappa, skronking out his overtones through the ether. Soo-Teon Lyuh is featured on “Emphyrio Salpuri”, bowing a haegeum into a minor key melody so that Kaiser and Mahanthappa may indulge themselves. Pianist Tania Chen and cellist Danielle DeGruttola, both guest on “The Story Changes”, a delightful racket that pits together all involved.

Mudang Rock is a tantric album. Its seven tracks stretch over an hour and 14 minutes, which seems like an awfully short amount of time to be possessed by a supernatural spirit. You really do need to check your expectations at the door for this session, seeing as how Korean rhythms and crazy solos are what carry the day here. And if you just forget anything you know about contemporary jazz musicians performing crossover stunts, the sounds of Mudang Rock can become as euphoric as the free jazz that everyone thought was mindless indulgence back in the early ’60s.