Barker/Kaiser/Laswell/Mahanthappa

Mudang Rock
Fractal Music 2028-801

Luckily more “Mudang” than “Rock”, this long (71 minute plus) CD is another marker in California guitarist Henry Kaiser’s decades long investigation of Korean shamanistic music. This time out he’s aided by an A team of like-minded sound explorers. Austrian percussionist Simon Barker is as skillful playing traditional Korean music which he has studied for two decades, as Jazz. American Bill Laswell is best known for his production work that melded Rock Funk, Electro, Hip Hop and world rhythms, as well as his bass playing with the likes of Ronald Shannon Jackson. Additional string players are added on a couple of tracks, but Mudang Rock’s most crucial element is the playing of New York-based alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Already noted for his ability to add echoes of his East Indian heritage to improvisation, Mahanthappa’s searing interjections adhere the seven tracks to serious sonic tropes and away from faux exoticism.

The strength and subtly of the saxophonist’s imagination is audible as early as track one, “Orange Kut”, where his elevated altissimo sprawls climb even further to attain Trane-like timbre stretching, backed by bass thumps and percussion slaps, and challenged by clashing superfast Rock-like flanges from Kaiser. No matter how frenetic the overlay and how many times the saxophonist has to resort to honks in response, he never loses sight of the tune’s moderato story-telling conception.

This convulsive jounce continues throughout the disc alongside the balancing act between innovation and tradition. The addition of Soo-Yeon Lyuh’s haegum or two-string Korean fiddle on “Emphyrio Salpuri” shifts the interface in one direction, while Chen’s piano and Danielle DeGruttola’s cello on “The Story Changes” move it in the other. But Kaiser’s squawking guitar distortion and strums plus the saxophonist’s mid-range vibrations push the Ur-European instruments eastwards. In contrast Barker’s Carnatic-styled hand drumming plus Laswell's unvarying ostinato on “Emphyrio Salpuri” put the haegum’s whines into an unusual but hardly traditional context, confirmed by expressive guitar fills and buzzing. Although the over-19-minute “Yongari vs. Bulgasari” expresses the quartet’s unique tone adaptation at its greatest length and detail, notably with Mahanthappa adding adhan-like call-to-prayer cries and reed snarls that come up against amped up electric buzzes and slurred fingering from the guitarist, the appropriately titled last track, “The Final Ritual” provides the definitive climax.

Reed tongue flutters, guitar-hero-like shakes and vibrations, plus bass string sluices and Eastern-styled drumming wrap up the track – and the album applicably. The collection of high-energy bleats strums and plops sum up the experiment without losing either the experimentation or melody propelling of the creation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Orange Kut 2. Logarhythm 3. Emphyrio Salpuri* 4. The Story Changes^ 6. Yongari vs. Bulgasari 7. The Final Ritual

Personnel: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Tania Chen (piano)^; Henry Kaiser (guitar); Soo-Yeon Lyuh (haegum)*; Danielle DeGruttola (cello)^; Bill Laswell (bass) and Simon Barker (drums)