Lonnie Holley, the multi-disciplined artist/creator/storyteller from Birmingham, Alabama, brings us his 2018 release on Jagjaguwar, MITH. This album is not for those quick to judge, but for those yearning to understand. Holley comes from a large family and gave rise to many kinfolk, and the sounds of this album seem to extend the meaning “family” to those in the street, on the news, in his mind, and in the collective conscience.
Fans of Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, or even your local slam poet or street corner philosopher will certainly enjoy MITH. The release comes off his 2012 debut album, at the age of 62, Just Before Music and his 2013 release Keeping a Record of It.
In this stint, Holley touches on the political and personal. The songs go lyrically and sonically through prehistoric and current times, and it feels like he is telling us the secrets of his meditations on the meanings in life and the outer reaches of the universe. Thematically, Holley bridges the divide between the promise of futuristic-technological advancements with earthly needs and yearnings of everyday souls.
I’m a Suspect opens the album with overdubbed vocals, an airy synth, and a singular trombone that unfolds into a chorus of horns. Here, his message on current times is painful and political; “Here I stand accused/my life has been so misused/through blood, sweat and tears, I’m a suspect/brown in America”
How Far is Spaced-Out? hits like a confession about coming of age — or of coming to terms… through its funky, thoughtful, questioning beat, Holley sings about trying to impress – “I kept playing/for years I was playing/ I was in this band/doing all the funk that I can….tried to drown my tears off in alcohol”. It relates on so many levels.
The real meat & potatoes, his (our?) heart of darkness comes through with the songs I Snuck Off the Slave Ship (“Fields turned into factories…industries…”) and the extended tone-poem I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America, whose sounds reverberate a powerful, loud, militant message on a present-day disconnect that humans struggle with; (“Yeah, humans fighting in the street/ cellphone abuse/computer misusers/overdatafying/ all data to feed the cloud”)
All of the songs put emotion to the forefront, and some provide us with solutions to go forward. For example, with Copying the Rock, its dancing attitude and grounding, nature-esque intentions reminding us that opposite of being spaced-out lies a home under our feet; “Hey, til you find you a rock that was worth copying/Mother Earth going around/…I don’t know nothing about Jupiter, Mars or Venus, Mercury”. And Coming Back (From the Distance Between Spaces of Time), though ethereal and slowly moving, hits with Holley’s medicine of reconciliation and return.
Worry not, as MITH has its playful moments, like in Back for Me, featuring a jaunty strolling piano, sentimental vocals, and a gentle saxophone, and in Sometimes I Wanna Dance. Look for collaborations with drummer Dave Nelson, and improvisers Shazad Ismaily & Laraaji in this album. The textures reveal what materials are at play in Lonnie’s world. And be ready to be taken on a journey of quantum thoughts — thoughts that confess and muse on how the past becomes the future.
Nothing other than an intimacy with the circular nature of time can explain the perfunctory agitation pervading MITH. You’d be hard pressed to find yourself a Philistine among the learn’d after hearing Holley’s works; so broad is this message. Dichotomies and paradoxes are pronounced and explored with assurance. Comforting are Lonnie’s words, wherein the true beauty of this album lies; lines like “mercy to all men”, “I’m a suspect until a dust speck”, tell of far-out journyes that ultimately come back to where they began. After all, we cannot forge into the future of mankind without remembering mistakes of the past and the struggles. MITH, a truly avant-jazz release, and highly recommended by this listener, expands upon our concepts of genre and ultimately reminds us of the commonalities we hold as people.