INTERVIEW: Marilyn Mazur (appearing on 14 Sep at Sounds of Denmark)

Marilyn Mazur
Photo credit: Gorm Valentin
Ahead of  SOUNDS OF DENMARK, a five-day festival, now in its second year which celebrates Denmark’s rich and multifaceted improvised music, we took the opportunity to talk to a true jazz legend, percussionist MARILYN MAZUR. She will be appearing in the Festival on 14 September with Makiko Hirabayashi. Interview by Dan Paton:

Legendary percussionist Marilyn Mazur is accustomed to playing large spaces, both with some of the most important figures in the history of jazz (Miles Davis, Jan Garbarek) and in her own role as a leader of a dizzying variety of ensembles. It seems, however, that her illustrious career still produces some surprises. ‘We just played somewhere here in Denmark actually called The Blue Planet, which is an aquarium where they have fish and sharks. They have an eating place in the middle of that where we played. This was actually a nice experience - people were listening and we were playing very acoustically. It was not the way we’re used to playing in concert halls where we have the whole space to fill. So maybe this is some preparation for Pizza Express, where we don’t take up the whole space but we’re a part of the environment, which can also be nice. I’m looking forward to it. I like change in my life - going from big places to small places and moving around - that’s interesting.’

Mazur is coming to London with pianist Makiko Hirabayashi’s trio as part of Sounds of Denmark, a five day festival, now in its second year, celebrating Denmark’s rich and multifaceted improvised music. It will be her first visit to the Pizza Express Jazz Club. ‘I’ve heard of so many Danish musicians playing there’, she says enthusiastically, ‘but I’ve never been.’

Having played with leading American and European musicians, but having lived in Denmark from the age of 6, Mazur is well placed to discuss the ways in which Denmark offers distinctive approaches to making music. Living there appears to have suited her creative temperament particularly well. ‘I’m so happy I grew up in Denmark. I think it’s a great place and I think there’s a lot of freedom here. There’s a lot of people who are allowed to develop what’s important for them on their own. I often think about how it would have been if I had grown up in New York and it would have been very different. I think there are different attitudes to music.’ She goes on to explain more about how the attitudes in Copenhagen differ from those in New York City: ‘When I grew up one could only study classical music. I found my own way - I would make little homemade poems and songs, later on it all came together in to my musical language. In America, there are more ways of studying the correct ways of doing things. They are more individualistic in Scandinavia to some degree. It might also have been because the jazz scene here wasn’t as developed - I didn’t grow up playing with other musicians - I started playing with other musicians when I was 17 - so I had a private route into music. I don’t know if that’s unique to Denmark but it’s where it happened.’

It is interesting that, in addition to the free and self directed learning methods, Mazur emphasises the individualism of Danish culture. At the risk of resorting to simplistic cliche, we tend to think of the USA as a bastion of individualism, whereas Scandinavia has been a fertile ground for social democracy and more collectivist thinking. Like many other musicians, Mazur clearly does not believe that the two are mutually exclusive. ‘They have this very developed jazz scene in America. They’ve had to fight their way in music and I think it’s tougher in general in New York. Here there is a lot of support for culture in general, allowing people to do things the way they believe in so it tends to be more special for that reason - the European music has now grown really strong in the jazz world and the two (American and European jazz) are more equal.’

No doubt coincidentally, but perhaps this also offers a sense of musical contrast or balance, Makiko Hirabayashi appears to have taken the opposite route. Spending her childhood in Japan and Hong Kong, she then went to the USA to study at Berklee, where she met her Danish husband, prompting her subsequent move to Denmark. Mazur explains the genesis of their musical relationship: ‘The first time I met her, I was leading a big band project. I was the conductor and she was the piano player. That was back in 1996. Several years passed before she asked me to play with her and slowly it developed into her trio, along with a lot of other projects. I’ve become so happy with Makiko that I have her in several of my other bands!’ Makiko Hirabayashi remembers the big band project well herself, but also emphasises her already considerable enthusiasm for Mazur’s music: ‘When I first heard Marilyn Mazur's Future Song back in the 90's, I had just moved to Copenhagen, and it sounded like music from Mars to me, something totally alien, but at the same time very inviting and magical. Later on, I had the chance to play Marilyn's music on tour with European Youth Jazz Orchestra where she was conducting the big band. So I was familiar with her music, and knew instinctively that we shared a lot in common.’ It seems that the two musicians were well placed for an enduring and fruitful working relationship from the outset.

There are two striking elements of the trio’s 2014 album Surely - one is the strong connection between the various members of the band (Mazur’s husband Klavs Hovman is the bassist). Mazur agrees: ‘We’ve become really tight together - so many years and so many concerts. We really feel we have something together, we can feel really free when we play together.’ Another stand out feature is that Mazur is a singular and prominent contributor, playing a wide range of percussion instruments and experimenting with orchestration, texture and colour throughout. Her range of bells give Moon Bells its ethereal atmosphere, whilst her kalimba informs the delightful introduction to Asunder Asunder, both sensitive and playful. ‘I don’t think as a drummer in the normal sense’, Mazur explains. ‘If I’m on a regular drum set, I’ve got a percussion approach to it. I’m not playing a lot of bass drum and snare drum patterns, I’m all over the place! I use more sounds and I like moving a lot when I’m playing.’

Mazur has always been a very physical performer. Miles Davis encouraged her to dance as part of her stage presence, and she later explains that she also used a ‘sample mat’ at that time, triggering sounds by dancing. This physicality has been a consistent thread in her career, although it also comes with a very strong melodic sense too. ‘Yes I guess that’s true’, she says. ‘I come from playing piano as a child so I think I listen to music in a different way. I’m not thinking of being a timekeeper or being the base of the music in that sense. I’m more of a reactive player - blending in at the top and at the bottom, thinking in terms of dynamics, vibrations and colours.’ Hirabayashi obviously has a deep understanding of the musicians in the trio and celebrates their individual contributions: ‘Playing with this trio feels like we are one big living organism. If we drift a little apart, Klavs is always there to bring us back. Marilyn has an incredibly rich palette in terms of sounds. She adds depth to the music with all the details and layers she can play, both on the drums, percussion and voice.’ It seems clear that this approach, with all three of the band members improvising and interacting, will continue to their next album, scheduled for release in 2018. This time, however, it will also feature an additional guest, trumpeter Jakob Buchanan.

One of the challenges of playing with such a wide ranging percussion set up is that it is not always possible to travel with all of it. This time, Mazur will bring various bells and the kalimba with her, and much of the rest will be sourced locally. She is impressively relaxed about this: ‘One of the most exciting parts of the game is “what will they bring today”? But all the sounds are exciting and, whatever I get, I somehow find it an interesting challenge to make it into a nice percussion set. I will tune it up as if it were my own.’ Many musicians feel a strong personal attachment to their own instruments, but it seems that Mazur’s extraordinary depth and range of experience means that she can essentially make any instrument hers.

Mazur’s relationship with Klavs Hovman is significant and longstanding, both personally and professionally. Fortunately, this does not seem to pose any sense of conflict or difficulty. ‘Bass and drums are actually the natural couple in jazz music’, she argues. ‘We are really close together and really understand each other, and can follow each other wherever in music. We are also married in music, which is a very important part of our lives together.’ She also explains what she calls the ‘pre-history’ of their relationship: ‘We met at a jazz course back in 1981 and we had the chance to play together. It was magic, the music flew away. For a long while we were just in to playing together and after some years, we got more and more close and we ended up a couple, and have stayed together ever since. We have a son together so now we’re a real family. Our son is almost 27 and became a music producer on his own, even though he said for his whole childhood that he would never be a musician! It’s not jazz at all - he’s in to an entirely different vibe, rap music and producing.’

Both Mazur and Hovman allow each other ample opportunity to explore their own musical concerns and priorities, enjoying the ways in which their respective musical lineages interact. ‘Klavs comes from more of a jazz background than I do. He’s played more straight kinds of jazz music - I’ve never really been into bebop or more traditional kinds of jazz. Also, on the piano, I never learned to play jazz in the traditional sense, I was very interested in doing my own homemade music, which I still am! When I started playing drums, I discovered that meant I could play with anyone! My approach to playing drums is to use the ears a lot. So when I was newly in love with Klavs, it was exciting to join his world of jazz and to communicate musically with him, and he also found it exciting to join my more experimenting kinds of music. Whilst he plays acoustic bass in Makiko’s trio, he also enjoys experimenting a lot with pedals and with soundscapes.’ 

This ‘soundscaping’ appears to be something Mazur enjoys, having worked with a number of musicians who deploy electronics or effects. ‘I like electronics and I play with a lot of musicians that use them. I think electronics are great at making soundscapes - for some of the horizontal aspects in music. A lot of what I do is more vertical. My own world is more the organic and acoustic sounds but I play for example with Jan Bang, a live sampler who can sample my acoustic sounds and throw them back at me - so I can interact with myself!’ (Bang plays with Mazur in the collective ensemble Spirit Cave).

Shamania at Bergamo Jazz festival in Italy
Photo courtesy of Marilyn Mazur


Mazur and Hirabayashi will return to London again in November, this time as part of Mazur’s all female 11 piece ensemble Shamania. This unconventional line-up deploys a drummer (Anna Lund) and two percussionists (Mazur and Lisbeth Diers), and features the excellent Lotte Anker on saxophones and dance and choreography from Tine Erica Aspaas. It promises to be a very different prospect from Hirabayashi’s trio and both concerts are rare and very welcome opportunities to see Mazur in London. (pp)

MARILYN MAZUR UK DATES

Makiko Hirabayashi Trio
September 13th - Watermill Jazz, Dorking 8.30pm (BOOKING LINK)
September 14th - Pizza Express Jazz Club, London 8.30pm (BOOKING LINK)

Marilyn Mazur’s Shamania  

November 19th - Southbank Centre, London (EFG London Jazz Festival LINK)

FULL PROGRAMME FOR THE SOUNDS OF DENMARK FESTIVAL

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