Jeff Mills

This is the Burning Ambulance podcast’s sixth year, and our seventieth episode, so I decided it was time to change things up a little. This season, we’re going to have a single subject we’re going to be exploring through all ten episodes that I’m going to be presenting, and that theme is fusion.

Fusion is a very charged term. When most people hear it, in reference to music, anyway, they probably think of bands from the 1970s like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report: groups formed by ex-members of Miles Davis’s band that combined a certain freedom to improvise with extremely complex compositions that were closer to progressive rock than to jazz. I mean, when you listen to the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, side by side with King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black, they really fit together quite well. I mean, they’re even using the same instrumental palette: guitar, violin, keyboards, bass, drums. The only real difference is that King Crimson had a singer.

What interests me about fusion, the term and the concept, is that it lives up to something saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one of the co-founders of Weather Report, has said many times — that to him, the word jazz means “I dare you”. I dare you to play as loud as the rock bands. I dare you to embrace funk and multi-part suites and the most advanced studio production techniques available. I dare you to go big, to be ambitious. Because that’s what the best fusion of the 1970s was, and what modern-day fusion is. It’s ambitious. It doesn’t recognize externally imposed limitations, people saying “you can’t do that”. Why not? Why can’t you? It refuses to stay within the boundaries of genre. It’s not jazz, it’s not rock, because there’s no such thing as jazz and no such thing as rock. 

One of the things I discovered, or became more certain of, while writing my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century, which is out this month from Zero Books in the UK, is that jazz is ultimately about artistic intention. There’s no one instrument or rhythm or harmonic relationship that defines it, but there are two crucial values: innovation and improvisation. There must be an attempt to do something new, or to put a new spin on something old, and there must be an element of uncertainty and a real-time exchange of ideas, or in the case of solo performances, there must be an element of real-time thinking and spontaneous creation. Because it’s absolutely possible to play something that startles or surprises yourself, and then respond to it.

So fusion is about taking ideas from seemingly disparate genres and combining them. And taking the philosophies that govern those seemingly disparate genres and figuring out what they have in common. That’s what the Seventies artists did, and that’s what modern-day fusion acts are doing. I would include people like Thundercat, Cameron Graves, Christian Scott and even Kassa Overall, who’s been on this podcast before, in that category. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about all year long on this podcast, through interviews with prominent fusion artists of the past and present.

Many people may not think of Jeff Mills as a fusion artist. He’s normally thought of as one of the most important musicians in techno history. I’m not gonna run down his discography here, that’s what Wikipedia’s for, but suffice it to say that his influence in the 1990s was massive, but what makes him interesting to me is that he’s taken the creative space his fame has brought him and used it to really expand his own sonic parameters. He’s made an album with a full orchestra. He’s created new scores for silent films. He’s made albums inspired by astronomy, science fiction, and his interest in the supernatural. And he’s collaborated with musicians who are geniuses in their own fields. In 2018, he made an album called Tomorrow Comes the Harvest with legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. And that project led to the first of the three albums he put out in 2021. It’s called Counter Active, and it’s a collaboration with keyboardist Jean-Philippe Dary under the name The Paradox.

The second album he released this year was called The Clairvoyant, and it’s about two hours long — if you buy it on vinyl, it’s three LPs, and he says that the best way to experience it is to lie back in the dark and listen to the whole thing from beginning to end. It arises out of his interest in spiritualism at the beginning of the 20th century and his perception of the similarities and connections between that era and now. That’s one of the topics we discuss in the interview you’re about to hear, in fact. And I have to admit I was surprised by how willing, even eager, he was to discuss social issues. A lot of electronic music is deliberately anonymous, deliberately emotionally blank — it’s a canvas on which you can paint your own feelings. But it also reflects broader social conditions, as any art produced by human beings inevitably must. Detroit techno represented the frustration and anger, as well as the hopes and dreams, of the citizens of that city, and Underground Resistance, a collective Mills formed with Mike Banks and Robert Hood, was explicitly political, taking on social conditions in their city and the overall politics of the music industry.

The third album Jeff Mills put out in 2021 was The Override Switch, a collaboration with Rafael Leafar, who plays a number of instruments on the record, including tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, contra-alto clarinet, flute, cornet, and a wide range of keyboards. The music they make together is fusion in the purest and most genuine sense: the rhythmic steadiness of electronic music combined with the melodic and harmonic adventurousness of jazz. The individual pieces, and the album as a whole, take the listener on a real journey. And frankly, on a purely sonic level, I find it easy to draw lines between this and the music that people like Stanley Clarke and George Duke were making in the 1970s.

Anyway, I feel extremely lucky to have gotten the chance to talk to Jeff Mills for an hour. He’s an incredibly busy guy, so tracking him down was a challenge, and the day we were initially scheduled to talk, he had to run from Paris to London, so we moved it, and then when I did catch him, I thought he was still in Paris but it turned out he had returned to London, which meant I was calling him an hour later than expected. Still, it was a fascinating conversation that went in some really unexpected directions. I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Music featured in this episode:

The Paradox, “Super Solid” (Counter Active)

Jeff Mills, “Someone Who Feels Things” (The Clairvoyant)

Jeff Mills & Rafael Leafar, “The Sun King” (The Override Switch)