Henry Kaiser – Mudang Rock [TrackList follows] – Fractal 2018-801 74:23 [9/14/18] ****:

Bay Area guitarist Henry Kaiser takes experimentalism to a whole other level. He’s a unique soloist, a wide-ranging collaborative musician (Richard Thompson, David Lindley, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and saxophonist Greg Osby are a few of the artists Kaiser has worked with), an ethnomusicologist (Kaiser has studied and played music related to Madagascar, North American natives, Norway, East Asia and other locations) and a film score composer (for Werner Herzog and others). He’s done tributes to bluesman Willie Dixon and Miles Davis. Over the decades Kaiser has continued to find inspiration in avant-garde and free improvisation. On Kaiser’s 2018 release, the 74-minute and seven-track Mudang Rock, he creates sweeping material influenced by the rhythms and spirit of Korean shamanic traditions. But this is no Korean folk album. Far from it. Kaiser explains, “One very special thing about Mudang Rock is that it combines more elements than are generally put together in any sort of fusion.” Listeners may not directly notice but Kaiser merges Korean shamanism with nods to Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis’ mid-1970s era, Captain Beefheart, Albert Ayler and more. Only a distinctive group can match Kaiser’s vision. He found one with drummer Simon Barker (an Australian jazz instructor who spent 20 years learning from leading Korean musicians), bassist Bill Laswell (his career has touched on dub reggae, skronk-jazz, electro-funk and other sub-genres) and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (his background includes Indo-Pakistani hybrid jazz and more).

The nearly 12-minute opener, “Orange Kut,” proves this isn’t traditional Korean music but a concoction of improvisational jazz, experimental jazz-rock and fusion-jazz which utilizes African, Indian and Asian foundations. During “Orange Kut” Mahanthappa shifts and pivots on his alto sax while Kaiser uses an animated wah-wah guitar effect which hints at Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock as well as modern stylists. Laswell and Barker fashion time signatures which conjoin Korean and Western milieus. The harmonic units are jazz-oriented but are so external to traditional jazz some might be inclined to think otherwise.

The seven-minute “Logarhythm” is the primary tune which evokes Davis’ mid-‘70s, funk-derived work. Laswell and Kaiser mirror each other’s power-driven attack while Mahanthappa curves, soars and stimulates on his horn. Laswell demonstrates his ability to hold down the bottom end while sustaining a roving mannerism. Barker’s percussive course is long-limbed and challenging: at the beginning of “Logarhythm” his rhythms suggest his Korean music education but along the way he showcases jazz and other types of music. The Asian percussive slant is intense during the introduction to the eight-minute “Silappadikaram Pacifica,” where Barker and Mahanthappa convene a lengthy duet. The word Silappatikaram refers to Tamil literature from the southern India region. “Silappadikaram Pacifica” is an intoxicating piece with an exotic, otherworldly pungency which morphs Indian music dialectal with Western improvisation. The East meets West radiance is fully explored on the 8:42 “Emphyrio Salpuri.” The title denotes a kind of Korean ritualistic and shamanistic dance, although the forceful music generated by the band isn’t what most people might expect for ceremonial dance. The group is joined by fellow Bay Area artist Soo Yeon Lyuh, a master of the haegeum or Korean two-string fiddle. She’s been on stage with the Kronos Quartet, Fred Frith and has previously performed with Kaiser.

Mudang Rock PortraitA different—but nevertheless free-flowing—vibe layers through the 8:31 “The Story Changes,” which adds pianist Tonia Chen (known for her interpretations of John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Morton Feldman) and cellist Danielle DeGruttola (who has experience in sound design and contemporary performance; she collaborated with Kaiser on Herzog’s Grizzly Man soundtrack). “The Story Changes” is an ever-evolving free-improvisation which melds bits of provocation, compassion and jaggedness into an inimitable brew. The longest number is the epic, 19-minute “Yongari vs Bulgasari,” which alludes to two Korean monsters: one from the 1967 South Korean movie Yongary, Monster from the Deep and the other from the 1985 North Korean film Pulgasari.

Essentially, the quartet manufactures an imaginary soundtrack to an invented monster vs. monster mash-up. The result coalesces everything which makes Mudang Rock such a rousing, escalating and genre-smashing document. There’s blistering guitar pyrotechnics; emotive sax; bubbling electric bass; agitating and constantly moving percussion and drums. The bold arrangement is alert with possibility and alters from plugged-in fusion to acoustic moments and from loud to quiet. Free-improvisational fans who may not be aware of Mudang Rock should search for it. This is the sort of multi-genre jazz/improv which is a maximum experience.

Simon Barker – drums; Henry Kaiser – guitar, co-mixer; Bill Laswell – bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; Soo-Yeon Lyuh – haegum (track 3); Tania Chen – piano (track 4); Danielle DeGruttola – cello (track 4)

Orange Kut
Emphyrio Salpuri
The Story Changes
Silappadikaram Pacifica
Yongari vs. Bulgasari
The Final Ritual

—Doug Simpson

Link to more information about Henry Kaiser here: