An experimental ensemble is, in the most reductive sense, one that is not immediately classifiable. The Last Word Quintet earns the title by blending music and spoken-word performance. But that’s not the most notable thing about it: after all, similar attempts have been made over the years. What makes this group distinctive is the level of virtuosity of its members, and the sheer, irresistible ardor they convey.
The Quintet comprises four music scene veterans—singer-songwriter Al Day, pianist-composer Bob Long, saxophonist Brian Gephart and bassist-songwriter Doug Lofstrom—and performance poet Marc Kelly Smith, a giant on Chicago’s spoken-word scene as well as creator of the poetry slam. These artists weave their voices in a manner that’s immediately arresting. They’re attempting, as they put it, “to say things we all believed could not be said any other way.”
Each musician plays with tremendous restraint; they dazzle more by what they leave out than what they put in. It’s an exhilarating brand of self-assurance with a Zen quality. Day’s singing has the gravel of hard-won experience, but also the accompanying interpretive refinement; it’s sandpaper of the very finest grain. As for Smith, his recitations have genuine moral and emotional weight. When he yearns, as he does in several of the pieces, it’s clear we’re not hearing the hunger of youth but the accumulated pining of a lifetime.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Quintet was scheduled to play Studio5 in Evanston on May 15, which is, not coincidentally, the venue where a year ago they recorded their debut album, “Live at Studio5.” Released in March of this year, it’s a remarkable document. Nine of its ten tracks were written by the Quintet’s members (the exception is Duke Ellington’s “Brown Skin Girl in a Calico Gown”), and on each one Smith, backed by the tremendously sensitive players, amplifies the songs with spoken-word pieces that are largely, but not exclusively, his own.
The album opens with the Day-composed “Suicide Town,” a gospel-style shuffle. Its road-weary lyrics (“Been miles from home, but I’m still around / Looking for love in a suicide town”) are intercut with Smith’s reading of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mounted on the Fairground’s Magic Horses,” a moving declaration of outsider status (“And I hear them say, exactly like my mother… Oh, he’s so very different from us”). It’s a thrilling way to construct a piece of music and you experience a giddy rush at the bridge, which begins on a triumphant riff high above the melody line, then slowly climbs the ladder down from there.
This is followed by a ballad, also by Day, “Saving Grace,” which features powerfully plangent lyrics: “He was forgiven, but it didn’t matter / She was a beauty, but she had no face / They were together, but they were parted / By each other’s saving grace.” This is beautifully coupled with Smith’s reading of e.e. cummings’ “Anyone lived in pretty how town”: “when by now and tree by leaf / she laughed his joy she cried his grief / bird by snow and stir by still / anyone’s any was all to her”).
“Something of Something” is a Lofstrom composition in waltz time, with lyrics by Smith (“There is something of something around us / Within us between us around us”), gorgeously sung by Day before Smith adds his poetic amplification of the idea: “There is something in the wind, in the music, in the loneliness / That carries us back to the beginning / To the cloud’s face, to the yellow jacket’s churr / To the parting and convergence / To the dark red rapture within the bone’s marrow.”
More than one of the songs examines the nature of poetry and of creative energy. “Jaco,” written by Day, takes its inspiration from the life and career of legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius: “Jaco never took the scenic route / Just come on in with no way out / Jaco spoke in tongues, Jaco spoke in sins / Jaco dreamed his dreams, where no one else had been.” The theme gets a more widescreen treatment when Smith comes in with “Being a Poet” by the French writer Mr Zurg: “The poet is an alchemist who hangs verbs on the winds of revolution.”
At the climax of each number, Day and Smith take the mic to reprise their parts, and while the overlapping of their voices might have come across as muddy or cacophonic, they’re so in tune with each other—and with the players as well—that the result is a dazzling aural layering. By this point, it’s apparent we’re hearing an entirely new kind of poetic conversation, and it’s thrilling.
Not every track in the set is reflective or ruminative. “Everything Up Is Down to Me,” written by Day, is rollicking boogie-woogie, with blazing lyrics and bravura solos by the instrumentalists, and it gives everyone a chance to cut loose. But it’s no throwaway piece. It’s rollicking, yes, but Smith’s fiery declamation makes it also a cri de coeur: “We live in a time that just ain’t right / Everybody knows it but we just go on / Waiting for all the evidence to be gathered / And the gavel swung / And the jury unhung / And something new to be begun.” Similarly, “Tristan’s Blues,” by Long and Day, is a piano-driven swing tune, with both Smith and Day growling and barking in full-on Beat mode: “Don’t confuse down with up / Up from down / It’s all the same, man / Lose your shoes!”
My favorite track is the closer, “The Hope of Hope,” composed by Long and with lyrics by Day and Sue Demel. It’s a radiant, sweetly swaying chamber piece that I’m counting on the band reprising onstage. “In the end there sits the poet,” Day sings, in possibly the album’s only truly elegiac moment, “weeping for the perfect rhyme / It’s the hope of hope that’s ringing out / The hope that’s yours and mine.” Smith is more specific, and more gorgeously mournful, about that evasive hope: “I wanted to read all the books of unerring truth / I wanted to tie my shoelace fast / Spread jelly smoothly to the corners of the bread / Build a tower, a tall tower / … I wanted so bad, so bad / To be so many things / Without the whole thing / Falling down.”
As last words go, Last Word sticks the landing.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.