Sam Boshnack Quintet – Nellie Bly Project (2017)

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Elizabeth Cochran — better known as Nellie Bly — was a pioneering journalist of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and her exploits and accomplishments would have been noteworthy for any man. But that she was a woman able to thrive as a writer, inventor, industrialist and adventurer in male-dominated America during the height of the Industrial Age made her life all the more remarkable and inspirational.

Samantha Boshnack saw how Bly’s example could be a beacon for women today, especially in a world roiled from the uncertainty brought about by political upheaval. And thus, the Seattle based trumpeter, composer and bandleader set out to create a jazz opera of sorts to illuminate what Bly stood for with a few words and a lot of music. Nellie Bly Project (August 18, 2017 by Artists Recording Collective) represents a step up in ambition from the prior, already-ambitious release by the Sam Boshnack Quintet, because Bly was a complex figure, so any accurate depiction would likewise portray complexity.

That’s probably fine and good with Boshnack, who is already prone to stretch as both a composer and artist. The Quintet’s performances don’t necessarily follow conventional song structures: they flow more like an act in a play and this four act play seeks to tell the story of Bly through the moods projected in the veering harmony, rhythmic intricacy and occasional presentations of Bly’s writings whether by singing it or reciting it at critical junctures within each song.

Boshnack’s quest for a telling a story that connects with her audience goes beyond compositions and arrangements; her own trumpet emits sentiment that’s quietly poignant instead of maudlin, with a flatter, tender tone quality that often sounds (to me at least) closer to a cornet than a trumpet.

“Expositions” begins with a chamber music led by Beth Fleenor’s bass clarinet but soon formally launches with an interlocking groove. Boshnack’s melody has layers of complexity but fun to follow as she leads with logical lines. Just as the song appears to be to winding down, a chant “innocent, unaffected and frank” emerges and accompanied by a sung reading from Bly’s writings, the two opposing vocal

“After One Is In Trouble” features Anne Whitfield recitations of more of Bly’s prose, but what’s just as striking is how the ensemble stays so connected to each other like a chamber orchestra, despite everyone is playing parts that address different regions in the sonic landscape. Boshnack carefully builds up momentum on her showcase — which she does in her usual lyrical way — before the music goes off to Max Wood’s drum solo, a fine time for Anne Whitfield to deliver a handful of more prose from Bly.

A hypnotic, cyclical bass figure from Isaac Castillo lays the foundation for “72 Days.” The cadence of the refrain chanted here become the basis for the rest of the song, underpinning a sublime clarinet performance by Fleenor. Alex Chadsey’s piano assumes a larger role for “Legacy,” the centerpiece of which his soloing over the song’s dynamic changes.

Just as Nellie Bly was able to show what a woman is capable of when gender barriers are confronted or outright ignored, Sam Boshnack is an example of a growing number of women leading a resurgence of creativity in jazz.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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