Danish drummer-composer-bandleader and world music pioneer Marilyn Mazur has, over the course of five decades, established herself as a master percussionist and musical visionary. Noted for her sidewoman work during the ‘80s as a touring member of the Tutu-era Miles Davis band and through the ‘90s with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Mazur has also led various groundbreaking ensembles throughout her career, most recently the adventurous 10-piece group Shamania, a gathering of ten of Scandinavia’s most inventive and respected female musicians. The group’s self-titled debut was released in 2019 on the London-based RareNoise Records.
«In the jazz world, it’s very much been men that have created the language,» she volunteered. «It’s nice to be able to be a part of creating the modern sound of jazz. Being all women provides a very special feeling to everyone in the band and allows us to bring some fresh energy to the music.»
At the core of Shamania, as with the innovative Primi Band she founded in 1978, is the Danish term urkraft, which translates roughly as «primeval power» or «primitive force.» As Mazur interprets it, urkraft represents “getting back to instinctive ways of expressing yourself. I had the vision of a kind of abstract modern version of a tribal female gathering from the past. This ritual feeling was the main idea of Primi Band and the starting vision for Shamania.»
Regarding her compositional process, Mazur explained, «I listen to a lot of different music and, of course, it influences me and becomes part of my subconscious musical language. But I write more by having visions and dreams and putting them into the music. The tribal feeling of the music in Shamania might draw parallels to gamelan music, to African music, to Indian music. But this rather shows inspirations from the universal musical language than being a conscious choice to use those specific musical traditions.»
In some of their concerts, Shamania features the improvising dancer Tine Erica Aspaas, reinvigorating the ancient bond between music, percussion and dancing. «I’ve always been very much into dancing, also when I play music,» Mazur said. «It’s not even a conscious thing; my approach to playing is just naturally very physical and also very visual -- at least that’s what I hear from people. When people go to hear concerts they’re looking at all these musicians playing, so it really adds a lot to the music to have someone concentrate on visualizing the music with their movement.»
Born in New York City on January 18, 1955 of Polish and African-American descent, Mazur has lived in Denmark since age six. She began studying classical piano and ballet at age nine and as a teenager joined The Creative Dance Theater in 1971. Mazur later studied classical percussion at The Royal Danish Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, though she is primarily self-taught on her many instruments, drawing on inspiration from music from all over the world. «My classical education is a good help and inspiration for me, but I am happy to have chosen to mostly go my own ways in music, although it sometimes complicates things to have to invent my own systems. I play with my feelings and am happy about it.»
Mazur formed her first band Zirenes in 1973 as a pianist/composer, and by 1975 she was also working regularly as percussionist, drummer and singer for various groups. Her breakthrough on the Danish scene happened in 1978 with the popular fusion band Six Winds with drummer Alex Riel and as leader of the all-women music-theatre group, Primi Band. In 1983, she received The Ben Webster Award and formed the jazz quartet MM4 with saxophonist Uffe Markussen. Since then she has continued to develop her uniquely personal musical vision with various kindred spirits.
A turning point in Mazur’s career came in 1985 when she was invited to take part in the recording of Danish trumpeter-composer Palle Mikkelborg's tribute to Miles Davis, Aura. Davis himself took part in the recording sessions and a few months later he asked Mazur to join his band. She subsequently toured with the Miles Davis Band for long stretches of time during the late ‘80s. (Her tenure with Miles was documented on the posthumous 1996 Warner Bros. release, Live Around The World). In 1986, Mazur also toured and recorded with the Gil Evans/Laurent Cugny Big Band Lumiere (documented on two EmArcy albums, 1988’s Rhythm-a-ning and 1989’s Golden Hair). In 1987, she made a world tour with the Wayne Shorter Quintet and by 1988 was back with the Miles Davis Band. She recalled to All About Jazz that the music of Miles Davis was her entry point into jazz:
«My first strong impact with jazz happened when a friend of mine installed me in a dark room at his place, with headphones on, and made me listen to Bitches Brew. At that time I didn't know what I was listening to but I had a very strong experience because I fell immediately into a kind of trance or dream, and I started seeing images. When the music finished my friend showed me the cover of the album and there were all the pictures I dreamed. I had this dream about an ocean and black and white people, in a kind of magic atmosphere. So Bitches Brew really set a mark for me, because ever since I see music as a magical way of communication.»
Some of the other musicians she has worked with through the years include Bobo Stenson, John Tchicai, Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Jon Balke, Dino Saluzzi, Irene Schweizer, Peter Kowald, Arild Andersen, Andreas Vollenweider, Christy Doran, Marilyn Crispell, Charlie Mariano and Jasper van’t Hof, Rita Marcotulli, Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson, Nils Petter Molvaer, Klavs Hovman, John Taylor, Norma Winstone and Pierre Dørge’s New Jungle Orchestra.
In 1991, following the birth of her son Fabian, Mazur joined the Jan Garbarek Group, with whom she continued to tour through 2004. Since then, she has focused mainly on her own groups, including the Marilyn Mazur Group, Celestial Circle, Mystic Family, Spirit Cave, Future Song, Special 4, Percussion Paradise and Shamania.
In 2001, Mazur received the prestigious Danish Jazzpar Prize and in 2004 received the Danish Edition Wilhelm Hansens Komponistpris, a prize normally handed out to classical composers. In 2013, she received the Grethe Kolbe Grant given by the Danish Conductors Association. Mazur is also a recipient of a lifetime composers grant from The Danish National Arts Foundation. In 2019 the album «Shamania» won the «Jahrespreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik».
(December 2, 2019)
2019 Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik mit «Shamania» No. 1 Jazz Performer, Down Beat, six times
2017 «DMF Live» an award given by the Danish Musicians Union DMF
2017 Wilhelm Hansen Foundation's Honorary Prize – Copenhagen, Denmark
2016 Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music
2013 «Grethe Kolbe Grant» given by the Danish conductors Association
2010 EuroCore-JTI Jazz Award
2007 «Telenor International Culture Prize»
2004 Edition Wilhelm Hansen Composers Award «Django d’or –Legend of Jazz» in Paris
1989 Lifetime Grant from the Danish State – since 1998 composer Marilyn Mazur receives a lifetime grant from The Danish National Arts Foundation.
1989 JASA Prize, Danish jazz journalists
1983 Ben Webster Award