The James McGowan Ensemble is a 13-piece group consisting of two quartets and a number of solo artists, including its namesake piano player/director, James McGowan. All prevalent musicians in their hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, McGowan had the idea to convene all these masters to create an introspective and very personal album called Reaching In.
With the core of the group being the Modasaurus jazz-fusion quartet joining with the Despax string quartet, the marrying of classical and jazz music for Reaching In began as a concept for McGowan.
We all experience personal and collective struggles, and sometimes hide from reality, but this concept album shares a musical representation of my own process to reach in, work on myself, and seek inner peace, with the hope of re-engaging in society — reaching out.
With each masterful composition of the 16-track named after a personal struggle, there’s a progressing in the journey as well as in the music. From the fragmented, fractured emotion of “Internal Conflict” to the smooth, cello-led sorrow of “Acceptance” to the cool, empowering and hopeful groove of “Time to Rise,” the story of personal conflict and healing all there, laid out in beautifully composed music.
Reaching In is the first half of an extended story told through music, spoken-word program notes and visual art. It depicts a protagonist’s journey from struggles of isolation, low self-worth, social anxiety, addiction and loss, to finding peace, acceptance, belonging, and a sense of community. This multi-movement suite by composer and pianist James McGowan is created and performed in a fusion of classical and jazz styles, with other influences of free improvisation, hip hop and latin styles. Combining the Modasaurus jazz-fusion quartet with Despax string quartet at its core, several tunes also feature an enhanced ensemble with Petr Cancura and Mike Tremblay on tenor sax, Ed Lister on trumpet, and Mark Ferguson on trombone.
Using powerful musical expression, tonal interconnections, recurring themes and several pervasive musical motifs, the 16-movement concept album conveys deep feelings and extra-musical meaning. Guided by the composer’s poetry, the omnipresent instrumental musical motifs acquire intentional signification as the pieces unfold. Like a soundtrack to an imaginary film, the music itself is a narrative voice. It invites the listening audience to experience the emotional richness of life even more fully through one’s own imagination and personal reflection. The CD cover/digital album art depicting An Nguyen’s painting of Reaching In, also contributes a visual dimension that adds meaningful metaphors to the overarching narrative. The poetry, art and music take us through a story of overcoming personal challenges to offer an uncertain, yet hopeful future. The album seeks to engage the listener with their mind, heart and soul.
The continuation of this musical journey—and second half of the story—will be presented in the next album, Reaching Out to be released by the James McGowan Ensemble in 2024.
Rehearsals, concert performances, and some of the recording sessions were made possible in part because of winning a Concept-to-Realization grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.
The 16 tracks of Reaching In make up only the first half of a larger work. The second part will be called Reaching Out and is planned to be released in 2024.
Reaching In follows the tradition of the concept album where all the pieces together tell a larger story. The tunes taken as a whole relate to a theme of trying to overcome internal conflict and to seek inner peace.
Combining classical and jazz styles was a natural fit for composer James McGowan, who has worked within both fields for his whole professional life.
Using a classical-jazz fusion gives the work another means to capture the album’s overall narrative of reaching in to resolve internal conflict. Many of the pieces have intentionally placed classical and jazz elements in opposition or juxtaposition, while other later pieces—especially “Reaching In,” “Inner Peace,” “Through My Tears I Smile” and “Acceptance” fuse the different forces so that they genuinely work together. This musically embodies a form of acceptance of one’s disparate sides of their personality.
The story behind the music is outlined in the three parts of the song-poem “Imagine,” which divide the album into three sections.
The music poem “Imagine” was originally created by composer James McGowan as spoken-word program notes that he recited at the start of a concert in June 2022 when this music was first presented. It integrates the song titles into the poem itself.
The album uses over ten motifs and short themes, each with extra-musical meaning that are used as building blocks across multiple different tunes. Some of the motifs’ meanings are defined in the spoken-word poetry in the album itself, while other meanings will be defined in the poetry of the next album that continues the story in Reaching Out.
The work includes a Shostakovich- and Bach-inspired fugue in “Through my Tears I Cry” and other counterpoint techniques throughout the album. There are also several references to the B-A-C-H motif, which in German spells out the notes: B-flat, A, C, B.
The album is composed in the form of a 16 movement suite largely based around the key of E minor. Descending semitones are used throughout, signifying sadness. But there is also frequent rising semitone motion in pieces (e.g. from E to F), signifying hope.
The piece “Grief and Despair” includes a lengthy section of free improvisation by the jazz-fusion quartet over a repeated ostinato in the string quartet. This captures a sense of feeling trapped in one’s despair.
“Inner Peace” was originally entitled “Inner Piece” to show that the opening and closing A sections capture an unsettled sense of searching, while the middle B section or “piece” captures a peaceful, grounding meditative melody in Lydian mode, inspired by Raga Yaman from North Indian classical music.
One can hear the intentional reuse of themes among the tunes throughout Reaching In. This is especially true with “Augmented Reality” that brings back the themes from “Uncertain Future,” “Tripping Triceratops,” “Time To Rise,” “Internal Conflict,” and Simple Reality.” “Imagine (Part 2)” and the middle section of “Acceptance” bring back the theme from “Thoughts and Prayers”; “Through my Tears I Smile” reimagines the theme from “Inner Peace”; the three “Imagine” poems are crafted from the themes of the music that follows them. Finally, the themes from “Grief and Despair,” “Reaching In,” “Inner Child,” and others will all be revisited in the continuation album Reaching Out.
James McGowan’s child Cal performs cello on two tracks—Imagine (Part 2) and Acceptance—and was 15 years old at the time of recording.
The first of a two part series (Reaching Out to be released in 2024), Reaching In is both a first step for this new duodecet and the connection McGowan hopes to make with himself and others through the music.
James McGowan, piano, compositions (SOCAN), poetry
Alex Moxon, electric guitar
JP (Jean-Philippe) Lapensée, electric (six-string) bass
Jamie Holmes, drums
Cendrine Despax, violin
Jean Despax, violin
Maxime Despax, viola
Olivier Philippe-Auguste, viola
Valérie Despax, cello
Cal McGowan, cello
Mike Tremblay, tenor saxophone
Petr Cancura, tenor saxophone
Ed Lister, trumpet
Mark Ferguson, trombone
Jamaal Amir Akbari, spoken word
James McGowan, producer
Steve Foley, recording and pre-mixing
Rob Cosh, mixing and mastering
1. Imagine (Part 1) 2:39 Octet +voice
2. Thoughts and Prayers 4:16 Octet
3. Internal Conflict 1:18 Octet
4. Grief and Despair 7:00 Octet
5. Uncertain Future 5:50 Jazz quartet
6. Reaching In 6:35 Octet
7. Imagine (Part 2) 2:25 12tet +voice +cello
8. Time to Rise (ft. Petr Cancura) 4:35 12tet
9. Tripping Triceratops 5:42 12tet
10. Augmented Reality 5:28 12tet
11. Simple Reality 1:07 Sextet (strings+piano+bass)
12. Imagine (Part 3) 3:17 Octet +voice
13. Inner Peace 5:51 12tet
14. Inner Child 2:17 solo piano
15. Through my Tears, I Smile 5:54 Octet
16. Acceptance 3:54 Jazz Quartet +cello
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/@jamesjmcgowan
The James McGowan Ensemble is based in Canada’s National Capital Region. At its heart is the interaction of the Modasaurus jazz-fusion quartet—McGowan on piano, Alex Moxon on guitar, JP Lapensée on bass, and Jamie Holmes on drums—with quatuor Despax, a versatile string quartet based in Gatineau Quebec. The ensemble is enhanced by four horns on several tracks, featuring Petr Cancura (Ottawa Jazz Festival Artistic Director) and Mike Tremblay on tenor sax, Mark Ferguson on trombone, and Ed Lister (JUNO-award winning) on trumpet. Finally, the spoken word poems are performed by former Ottawa English Poet Laureate Jamaal Amir Akbari.
James McGowan is a pianist, composer, producer, and educator at home in classical, jazz, and improvised styles. He is an award-winning faculty member in Carleton University’s Music program, and performs regularly in Ottawa and beyond. In September 2020, his jazz-fusion quartet Modasaurus released its critically acclaimed sophomore album, 4K, after its debut album Two Intents released in 2017. In 2022, he was awarded a “Concept to Realization” grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to create Reaching In, his fifth album as leader/co-leader.
The Despax Quartet consists of violinists Cendrine Despax and Jean Despax, violist Maxime Despax and cellist Valérie Despax. Formed in 2003 by four brothers and sisters, Quatuor Despax performs regularly in the Ottawa-Gatineau. They have also performed in festivals and concert series across Canada and internationally, including France, Italy and Columbia. Some tracks also feature violist Olivier Philippe-Auguste and cellist Cal McGowan.