Drum and percussion star on playing in the moment
When Rhythm catches up with Marilyn Mazur she’s in Copenhagen and on the verge of visiting London with the Makiko Hirabayashi Trio as part of the Sounds Of Denmark concert series: “I’m up to so many different things that I’m almost dizzy!” she says.
Born in New York and living in Denmark since she was six, Mazur leads multiple bands of her own – including her 11-piece all-female big band Shamania who are playing at London Jazz Festival – and has performed alongside jazz heavyweights including Miles Davis, Jan Garbarek and Wayne Shorter.
An intensely musical player, whether on drums or percussion, Mazur was neither a drummer nor a jazz musician originally. “When I grew up I was playing classical piano,” says Mazur, who studied at the Royal Danish Conservatory. “At that time, I had been playing so much piano, I was like, ‘I can’t be a classical pianist so I have to think of something else to play!’ And that’s actually when I started playing percussion and drums. I think a lot more as a pianist than as a drummer.It’s a big part of my approach. I don’t listen to music from a drummer’s approach, more as a composer.”
When Mazur decided the piano wasn’t going to be her life’s calling, she was already listening to jazz but that wasn’t the only factor pulling her towards the drumset. “I had been dancing a lot and I was thinking, ‘The drum is a nice physical instrument where you use the whole body,’” she says. “The first band I made, where I was playing piano and composing, I was looking around and noticed there were no female drummers at that time in the early ’70s. I was thinking maybe I should try that and see what comes out of it. At that time, you couldn’t even study jazz so the reason I was at a classical conservatory was because that was the only option. That was a reason to stop focussing on the piano. I didn’t know at the time that this would be what filled my life, but I just chose classical percussion because then I could do something different.”
From the start of her career playing the marimba in the 1970s, Mazur has built up a dazzling array of percussion that she deploys according to the demands of the gig. And this all feeds into her compositional, melodic approach.
“Through my life, travelling around the world, I’ve continued collecting,” she says of her arsenal of instruments. “I’m a real big collector, I’ve collected lots of bells and gongs and strange sounds. I can’t stay away from making percussion set-ups and having lots of sounds to play on. It’s just become a natural part of my universe. With the Makiko Hirabayashi Trio I normally don’t have so much with me because we travel a lot. We try to be a flexible group so that it’s not too much work to travel around with, so mostly I play on a normal drumset and only have some bells and a kalimba with me, small stuff. But with my own groups, typically I make these very big set-ups.”
THE AURA OF MILES
Mazur’s big international breakthrough came when she was invited to play with Miles Davis in 1985. That led to her playing with Gil Evans, then Wayne Shorter, before she returned for a second stint with Davis in 1989. Mazur plays percussion on Davis’ 1989 release Aura but from the dawn of the 90s she decided to focus on her own writing with her group Future Song. “With Wayne Shorter I was on tour with him for nine months in all and, well, of course we played some great concerts here and there, but it was never really a tight group, whereas with Miles it was a different matter,” she says about that time of her life. “I played in two different groups with Miles Davis, about a year each. And, of course, he had selected who to put together, which didn’t necessarily form a group that really felt related and loved each other. You see, with my groups I like to have the feeling that it’s a family and that we really like each other and can communicate telepathically almost. I like that very much and that’s different to when you have a very strong leader that puts the groups together. But Miles was such
“I think a lot more as a pianist... I don’t listen to music from a drummer’s approach, more as a composer”
“I start with some kind of vibration, a mood or feeling and try to capture it in a melody or figures of some kind”
a strong leader that he somehow could manage to make it a strong group – although it was him making it strong more than the way we individually fitted together.”
In the 1980s Davis was hugely popular, playing massive stadiums around the world and experimenting with taking contemporary pop songs and trying to turn them into jazz standards. “We would play ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time’,” says Mazur. “The Miles music that I’d been really into was the music of 69,’ some of the ’70s with the more mysterious kind of vibe, that’s the music I grew up with and the music I really love, so when I was in his band, it was much more pop and groove-based. It had moved on from the music I was absorbed by. It took some work for me to get into it, but it was a great challenge and I really learned a lot from him.”
As for the contrast between playing in a stadium or an arena, versus dark, smoky jazz clubs, Mazur says they both have their appeal. “I love playing in small intimate places but I also like playing for big audiences because you get all this energy from people, which really brings you to a full concentration,” she says. “But on the other hand, it’s just different. Playing in small clubs, you’re also really concentrating because you’re close to people so in that way you’re also reacting more to the individual people sitting close to you.”
Mazur released her first album as bandleader, Marilyn
Mazur’s Future Song, in 1992 and maintains a prolific output to this day. She’s recently recorded Shamania’s debut album in Norway, and there’s a new album with the Makiko Hirabayashi Trio due in early 2018, to which Mazur contributed several songs. “Sometimes, I start with a rhythm but mostly I would start with some kind of vibration, a mood or feeling and try to capture it in a melody or in figures of some kind,” she says about her approach to composing. “I’m really into figures and as an old piano player I often work at the piano.” But there’s a difference in writing for or playing in a trio versus a large group, like the eight-piece Future Song and the 11 members of Shamania. “Of course, leaving room for the musicians is a big part of the way I work because when I’m composing I’m always thinking of who I’m writing for and giving them space and letting their individual qualities come out in the music,” she says. “Naturally, big groups take a lot more work both in composing for them and all the practical matters to take care of. Composing is something that takes up a lot of my consciousness. I really am into writing music. The trio is also very much in the family business, thinking we’re all equal in a way and we always react to each other and play together. It’s not like a piano trio where she is the soloist and me and Klavs [Hovman, bass] are comping in that sense. On the other hand, playing in a trio with an acoustic piano means that you have to hold back a litle, from my point of view, because the drums can be really loud so if I was just playing full power like I do in some groups, that would be too much. But then again, it’s a collective group so we’re all playing together not only in the musical sense but also in the kids sense that we’re reacting and fooling around a bit in-between.”
Working in Jan Garbarek’s band, of which she was a member for 14 years, Mazur says she came to understand the concept of having a dialogue with yourself when taking a solo or comping the other musicians. “I guess that’s also a big part of the way I play, I’m a really curious person so I’m always reacting to what I hear in the music spontaneously and also reacting to what I play myself. That’s where the dialogue comes into it, so it’s a curiousness and taking chances is something that I think is important in music: that you dare dive into it and let go of all your prejudice and the set parts of the music because I think music has to be alive in the moment and have the vibrations of the moment as a part of it. So I think taking chances and the willingness to be free and curious are really important for me and for the musicians I choose to play with in my groups.”
Marilyn: “I can’t stay away from making percussion set-ups and having lots of sounds to play on”