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Album Review

James McGowan Ensemble – ‘Reaching In’ [Album Review]

At times sensual and seductive, at other times funereal, James McGowan Ensemble’s ‘Reaching In displays’ an array of not only styles but also depth and genius.



James McGowan Ensemble ‘Reaching In’ album artwork
James McGowan Ensemble ‘Reaching In’ album artwork

The James McGowan Ensemble recently released their album, Reaching In, the first part of a two-part series. Reaching Out will be released in 2024.

McGowan shares, “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.”

A 13-piece group consisting of two quartets and several solo artists, including its namesake piano player/director, James McGowan, all the musicians in the James McGowan Ensemble reside in Ottawa, Ontario.

With the group’s core 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.

The story behind the music is outlined in the three parts of the song-poem, “Imagine,” which divides the album into three sections.

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.

Reaching In 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.

On some pieces, the classical and jazz elements are juxtaposed, revealing the feeling of internal conflict, while, on others, the two styles are fused, working together to embody acceptance.

James McGowan Ensemble, photo by Curtis Perry

James McGowan Ensemble, photo by Curtis Perry

Musicians on the album comprise James McGowan (piano), Alex Moxon (guitar), JP Lapensée (bass), Jamie Holmes (drums), Cendrine Despax (violin), Maxime Despax (viola), Jean Despax (violin), Olivier Philippe-Augusta (viola), Valérie Despax (cello), Cal McGowan (cello), Mike Tremblay (tenor sax), Petr Cancura (tenor sax), Ed Lister (trumpet), Mark Ferguson (trombone), and Jamaal Amir Akbari (spoken word).

Entry points include “Thoughts and Prayers,” dripping with melancholic strings over a poignant piano, giving the tune a sad, nostalgic mood.

A personal favorite, the dirge-like “Grief and Despair” features a lengthy section of free improvisation by the jazz-fusion quartet over a repeated ostinato in the string quartet, capturing the sensation of feeling trapped in one’s despair.

“Through My Tears, I Smile,” a Shostakovich/Bach-inspired fugue, travels on aching, keening strings, imbuing the piece with piercing sorrow camouflaged behind a faux smile. Cutting, edgy tones give listeners a taste of the protagonist’s emotional agony.

Like Wagner, leitmotifs reappear throughout the album, e.g., “Augmented Reality” revisits the motifs of “Uncertain Future,” “Tripping Triceratops,” “Time To Rise,” “Internal Conflict,” and “Simple Reality.”

At times sensual and seductive, at other times funereal, Reaching In displays an array of not only styles but also depth and genius.

Reaching In Track Listing:

1. Imagine (Part 1)
2. Thoughts and Prayers
3. Internal Conflict
4. Grief and Despair
5. Uncertain Future
6. Reaching In
7. Imagine (Part 2)
8. Time to Rise (ft. Petr Cancura)
9. Tripping Triceratops
10. Augmented Reality
11. Simple Reality
12. Imagine (Part 3)
13. Inner Peace
14. Inner Child
15. Through my Tears, I Smile
16. Acceptance

Run Time: 68:00
Release Date: June 23, 2023
Record Label: Independent