Last spring, just after I reviewed Last Word Quintet’s debut album—a live set recorded at Evanston’s Studio5—I discussed them with a friend, who endeavored to define the music-and-spoken-word ensemble’s distinctive quality in a single word. I suggested what I’d used in my review—“ardor”—and she said, “That’s it exactly.”
The ardor is not only undimmed, but ratcheted up a notch on the group’s first studio release, “After the Rain.” The album was produced—as are most, these days—in a world shut down by the pandemic, and its members (Al Day—guitar, vocals; Bob Long—piano; Marc Kelly Smith—recitation; Doug Lofstrom—acoustic bass; Brian Gephart—saxophones) collaborated largely in isolation. The result is a deepening of an already passionate dedication to human connection. As the liner notes put it, “[W]hile it is true that performing artists are often, by nature, deeply focused on self-expression and the pursuit of art, it is also true that artists do not exist in a vacuum. They need a community and a society for which to serve.”
The sincerity of that sentiment is attested by the band’s March 5 album release party, a virtual set that will stream, for free, from the Facebook page of Martyrs’, one of the many music venues struggling through the live-music shutdown. The show will also serve as a benefit for the much-loved club, encouraging viewers to donate funds and buy Martyrs’-branded merchandise. “This is our moment to pay thanks to one of the great performance venues in Chicago,” reads the band’s Facebook invitation page. “Come on in to the virtual world of Martyrs’ in the hope that the real world will soon be available.”
Not that the real world is in any way an Edenic ideal. The eleven tracks on “After the Rain” chart a wrenching, if exhilarating, course across the range of human brokenness and disconnection. Most of the pieces follow the same pattern, beginning with Al Day singing the (usually original) lyrics, then moving to Marc Kelly Smith reciting a corresponding poem (again, usually his own), before concluding with Day and Smith overlapping each other in a reprise. As formulas go, it’s a pretty goddamn good one, and if you listen deeply, there’s usually a minor catharsis as a parting gift—with a cumulative build toward a major one at the record’s end.
The pieces range from the highly intimate to the sweepingly collective. “Black Rose” (music by Bob Long, lyrics by Day) is one of several cuts that uses the dichotomy of the music and the poetry to ingenious effect; Day sings of despair (“And you took that rose / And you let it fade / To a black rose that waits for me / Where I never knew / How I’m so alone / In a fool’s lost fantasy”) while Smith urges hope (“To distill from the night’s black petals / The gift of your hand / Clutching mine own / To break the patters that defeat us / To turn the patterns into delight”).
The dual nature is given added weight by the similarity in Day and Smith’s voices. In my earlier review I described Day’s singing voice as “sandpaper of the finest grain,” and there’s a gruffness in Smith’s voice, even at his most ardent. There’s an illusion of hearing two competing strands of the same restless consciousness.
Most of the poetry is Smith’s and the majority of the music and lyrics are the work of the band’s other members. But additional voices filter in; the set begins with Day singing verses by William Blake, and Whitman and Blake come up in their turn. The title tune features Day’s lyrics over a composition by John Coltrane, and there’s a bit of luxury casting in the form of guest appearances by vocalists Sue Demel, who matches Day’s impassioned singing in “Jimmie-o,” and Typhanie Monique, who provides a gorgeously soothing exhalation in the title cut.
Still, it’s the voices of the principal members that linger longest. The virtuosity and restraint which each player contributes is dazzling. The most impressive collective showing may be “Seascape,” in which the ensemble breathes a tremulous line under Smith’s recital of Whitman’s verses, swelling with intensity, until Smith resolves and diminishes; then Gephart’s sax elbows the mood into a jazz groove, and Day sings the lines Smith has just read, but with a shift in emphasis and effect, punctuated by Day’s electric guitar riffs and a blazing solo by Gephart.
In the album’s most overtly political piece, “If Not Now, When?” (lyrics by Long, music by Gephart), Day sings a plea for social activism (“Is it that we don’t know, just how to listen / To hear from, such distance / Is there always a choice to be forgiven / And not ever have to pay”), while Smith’s part is devastatingly reductive: a simple roll call of random victims of state brutality, from some who perished under the Nazis to children who died under our own watch in border camps.
But the album is ultimately redemptive. “After the rain has come,” the title cut asserts, “there is no more love or fear / and the silent way once more / is free and clear.” To which Smith adds:
The heart holds its own storm
Thunderstruck by life-long lessons
Witnessing the cruel stupidities
Of man-made dilemmas desecrating the earth
Solvable if only honest hearts
Would rise above the puny politics of grab
And shower the acrimonious landscape
With a tempest of indisputable truth.
Art may yet redeem us. In the meantime, there’s ardor to remind us.
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.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. 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.