HENRY KAISER, SIMON BARKER, BILL LASWELL & RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA Join Forces on MUDANG ROCK, An Exploration of Korean Shamanism Through Improvisation

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/Pangaeaperiod, and much more. “One very special thing about Mudang Rockis that it combines more elements than are generally put together in anysort 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.

Simon Barkeris a Ph.D. lecturer in jazz studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In addition to his numerous solo performances and recordings, he co-leads several internationally renowned ensembles, including Trace Sphere, Chiri, Showa 44, and Band of Five Names. He spent 20 years learning from masters in Korea and succeeded in transferring the region’s musical traditions to the Western drum kit. Barker was initially drawn to Korean rhythms after hearing the phenomenal improvising percussionist Kim Dae Hwan, and his interest grew after he was exposed to SamulNori and other traditional drumming groups. “While studying in Korea in 2001, I was introduced to ritual music by shamans from Korea’s east coast,” he says, “and was mesmerized by the incredible blend of energy and virtuosity, and by the extraordinary sound of a drumming language that was unlike anything I'd heard before.”

Grammy winner Henry Kaiseris widely recognized as one of the most intrepid guitarists, improvisers, and producers in the fields of rock, jazz, world music, and experimental music. Based in California, he is among the most extensively recorded as well, having appeared on more than 300 albums and contributed to countless television and film soundtracks. On top of his staggering output as a recording artist and producer, he performs frequently throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan, in formats ranging from solo guitar to regular groups to a broad array of free-improv situations. He is also a longtime research diver in the United States Antarctic Program, with 13 working deployments to the continent. While Kaiser has probed Korean music on five previous projects and countless live engagements, Mudang Rockstands as his deepest dive yet into one of his essential influences. “Whatever I might be playing at any moment—rock, blues, fusion, free improv,” he says, “those shaman grooves from Korea are always giant shadows and searchlights behind the sounds coming from my guitar.”

Over the course of some four decades, visionary bassist Bill Laswellhas been a strikingly prolific and restlessly creative force in contemporary music. A conceptualist who has always been a step ahead of the curve, he has put his inimitable stamp on nearly 3,000 recordings by such artists as Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Bootsy Collins, Peter Gabriel, Motörhead, George Clinton, Pharoah Sanders, Sting, Afrika Bambaataa, Fela Kuti and, most notably, Herbie Hancock, teaming up with the keyboardist for the trailblazing electro-funk/hip-hop single “Rockit.” In 1987 Laswell recruited SamulNori to perform in Japan with violinist L. Shankar, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and percussionist Aïyb Dieng. Those recordings, by the ensemble dubbed SXL, became SXLLive in Japan and Into the Outlands: equally meditative and rapturous albums that stake out the common ground between Downtown experimentalism, the four-part Korean percussion style that gives SamulNori its name, and other world musics.

Hailed by Pitchforkas "jaw-dropping, one of the finest saxophonists going," alto player, composer, and educatorRudresh Mahanthappahas, since his emergence in the 1990s, done groundbreaking work combining state-of-the-art jazz with structures and strategies reflecting his Indian heritage. Along the way, he has led some of the most fascinating working groups in recent memory, including the Indo-Pak Coalition, a virtuosic trio incorporating South Indian foundations, live electronics, stunning melodicism and more; and Bird Calls, a rousingly conceptual tribute to Charlie Parker. Mahanthappa has been a perennial favorite as alto saxophonist in DownBeat’s International Critics’ Poll, and was named the Village Voice’s “Best Jazz Artist” in 2015. He has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, among other honors, and is currently the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Director of Jazz at Princeton University.

These players are joined on select tracks by three wonderful female musicians, all veterans of Kaiser’s collaborative Megasonic Chapelalbum: Soo Yeon Lyuh, a professor of the haegŭm, a Korean bowed instrument, appears on “Emphyrio Salpuri,” with pianist Tania Chen and cellist Danielle DeGruttola contributing to “The Story Changes.”

In the end, however, Mudang Rockis for Kaiser a matter of spirit more than achievement. “Over my decades of exploring Korean music fusion, the bottom line is always: When we invite the Spirit, does it show up?” he explains. “That’s the other thing that I most enjoyed about playing this music and listening to it now. The Spirits are there with us, lifting us up and beyond into musical realms that we had never quite experienced before. Not only was this one of my favorite recording experiences ever, it is exactly the kind of music I love to listen to again and again.”