Sam Boshnack Quintet: The Nellie Bly Project
Artists Recording Collective

Nellie Bly Project, the audacious sophomore album by the Sam Boshnack Quintet, draws for inspiration from the life of the early feminist and maverick reporter, Elizabeth Cochran (1864-1922), who wrote under the pen name Nellie Bly. The Philadelphia-born Cochran entered the journalistic ranks when the feisty twenty-year-old sent a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch in response to a misogynistic article titled “What Girls Are Good For” and impressed the editor with her reply. Fearlessness and tenacity marked her career, Cochran even going so far as to tackle an undercover assignment for the New York World that involved feigning insanity to investigate the mistreatment of patients at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. Filled as her life was with similar incidents, Bly's story has never been more relevant than today, given the current level of political turmoil in the US, but it's also a story whose relevance resonates at a level transcending any single set of circumstances; it's worth mentioning that the Seattle-based Boshnack, who also leads the fourteen-member B'shnorkestra and is part of the composer-led ensemble Alchemy Sound Project, initiated the Bly project long before the current administration came to power.

The trumpeter's remarkable portrait weaves quotes by Bly into the album's four pieces, which play more like a single, long-from composition than individual settings. Beth Fleenor (clarinets), Alex Chadsey (keyboards), Isaac Castillo (basses), and Max Wood (drums) help the leader realize her vision, the quintet showing itself throughout to be a flexible unit capable of bending to accommodate the work's many twists and turns. Said quotes surface in all four parts, with Valerie Holt, Anne Mathews, and Boshnack singing on two tracks and Anne Whitfield speaking on the others. Aside from its suite-like form, one of the album's most distinguishing aspects is its stylistic form. Ostensibly a jazz recording featuring multiple solo spots, Nellie Bly Project is also an elaborately structured composition that might be likened to a classical work or even album-length prog-rock composition. Boshnack has honoured Bly's groundbreaking spirit by fashioning thirty-five minutes of music characterized by strength and determination.

Musically, the material dazzles, from the haunting thematic statement voiced by Fleenor's bass clarinet and Castillo's arco bass at the opening (a theme that surfaces repeatedly in differing instrumental garb throughout the track) to the deftness with which vocal parts are woven into the work's design. The words “innocent, unaffected, and frank” appear as an ostinato-like refrain within the opening movement, “Expositions,” three words Bly used to define a “true” woman, in tandem with the statement “Energy, rightly applied, can accomplish anything.” Certainly the thematic material is important, but the formidable musical content is just as deserving of attention. Boshnack's music moves, never more compellingly than in the section immediately following that initial statement when the band digs into a low-slung groove whose swing verges on irresistible.

In Boshnack's striking orchestration, it's not uncommon for instruments to pair up in unexpected combinations as counterpoint to a soloist. A Chadsey spotlight might, for example, appear with the trumpet and bassist playing in unison while the clarinet and drummer accent the arrangement with flourishes of a freer kind. Transitions are effected skillfully, too, whether it be from a solo passage to a strictly composed section or from a slow to fast tempo.

Titled after Bly's attempt to beat Jules Verne's fictional round-the-world record, “72 Days” frames a wild solo by Chadsey with two vocal chants (“It's only a matter of 28,000 miles ... I shall be back again”; “I would rather go in dead and successful than alive and behind time”), a subdued sequence that affords Fleenor ample room to solo, and a concluding part that sees trumpet fanfares alternate with Wood's robust expressions. As she does on much of the album, Boshnack leads the charge with a declamatory turn on the set-closing “Legacy,” an apt title with which to end this imaginative tribute. As befitting an album that was recorded in two days, the playing never feels laboured; to that point, the material was road-tested extensively before the recording session, a move that enabled the musicians to absorb Boshnack's charts and then execute them precisely without sounding overly studious. The trumpeter herself writes in the album's liner notes, “Nellie Bly's work and life are a testament to how hard women have struggled in the past, and a reminder that the fight is never over”; with the creation of this superb recording, Boshnack certainly has done her part to ensure this intrepid trailblazer's name won't soon be forgotten.

August 2017