Album Review: “Reaching In” by James McGowan Ensemble

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based 13-member group The James McGowan Ensemble (named after one of its namesake members) recently released a personal, introspective concept album titled “Reaching In”. It’s a story of the protagonist’s journey from loneliness, social anxiety and low self-esteem to self-awareness, acceptance and sense of community. The story is told through music, spoken words and visual art.

Reaching In by James McGowan Ensemble

As it often happens, we sometimes tend to stay away from reality due to our personal struggles. This unique classical-jazz fusion album shares James McGowan’s experiences of reaching in and working on himself in order to re-engage with the society after such struggles. Each track of this beautifully composed album is titled after a specific struggle. As such, you can see a progression in the journey as you move from one track to another. This happens both in terms of story as well as the music.

Listen to the album on Bandcamp.

“Reaching In” tells the first half of the story. It conveys deep feelings through recurring themes and powerful musical expression. The second half of the story is planned to be released in 2024 in the form of another album titled “Reaching Out”.

Stream or playlist via Spotify.

“Reaching In” Tracklist

This album has the following 16 tracks:

  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

The album tells the story through three parts of the song-poem “Imagine,” thus dividing the album into three sections. Each part of the poem integrates the titles of the songs and is created from the themes of the music that follows it.

“Imagine (Part 1)” is an octet with voice, clocking in a little over two-and-a-half minutes. The lush strings and stable music provide a perfect backdrop for the recital of the poem.

The second track “Thoughts and Prayers” is a meditative-style instrumental piece with an excellent harmony between the instruments. “Internal Conflict” is a brief, catchy piece capturing fragmented, fractured emotions. “Grief and Despair,” is also melancholic and it vividly expresses the pain of getting trapped in despair, while “Uncertain Future” is a brighter jazz quartet. “Reaching In” starts as a piano trio and it goes on to beautifully fuse the different musical elements.

“Imagine (Part 2)” brings back the theme from the earlier track “Thoughts and Prayers”. James McGowan’s child Cal McGowan, who was just 15 years at the time of recording, has played cello for this track.

Time to Rise” is a beautifully composed piece featuring Petr Cancura at tenor saxophone. It’s cool, empowering and hopeful, while “Tripping Triceratops” is a hip-hop inspired track featuring breathtaking solos by Alex Moxon (guitar), Mike Tremblay (tenor sax) and Jamie Holmes (drums). “Augmented Reality” is a melodic piece that brings back the themes from several different tracks, including “Internal Conflict,” “Uncertain Future,” “Time To Rise,” “Tripping Triceratops,” and “Simple Reality.” “Simple Reality” is the shortest track of the album. Extraordinary cello and piano are the highlights of this piece.

“Imagine (Part 3)” is an octet with spoken words. Musically, it’s more somber than the previous two parts.

“Inner Peace” is inspired by Raga Yaman from North Indian classical music. It provides a backdrop for more introspective thought. “Inner Child” features solo piano by James McGowan, while “Through my Tears, I Smile” has bittersweet tones in-between. “Acceptance” concludes this fascinating album with serene yet melodic cello-led composition. It is second of the two tracks in which James McGowan’s child Cal McGowan has performed cello.

Overall, “Reaching In” is a motivational and thoughtful album you’d love listening to. It’s highly recommended for fans of Chick Corea, Laurence Hobgood, Dimitri Shostakovich and Pat Metheny.

More Info About James McGowan Ensemble and “Reaching In”

James McGowan Ensemble

The James McGowan Ensemble consists of two quartets (Modasaurus and Quatuor Despax) and several solo artists. Modasaurus is a jazz-fusion quartet consisting of James McGowan on piano, Alex Moxon on electric guitar, JP Lapensée on electric bass and Jamie Holmes on drums. Quatuor Despax is a string quartet consisting of Cendrine Despax and Jean Despax on violin, Maxime Despax on viola and Valérie Despax on cello. Solo artists in the ensemble include Petr Cancura and Mike Tremblay on tenor saxophone, Mark Ferguson on trombone and Ed Lister on trumpet. The spoken word poems are performed by Jamaal Amir Akbari. Some tracks also feature violist Olivier Philippe-Auguste on viola and James McGowan’s teen child Cal McGowan on cello.

“Reaching In” is produced by James McGowan, who is a pianist, composer, producer and an award-winning faculty member in Carleton University’s Music program. He regularly performs in Ottawa and other places. His jazz-fusion quartet Modasaurus released its debut album “Two Intents” in 2017 and critically acclaimed sophomore album “4K” in 2020. “Reaching In” is his fifth album as leader/co-leader. In 2022, he was awarded a “Concept to Realization” grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to create this album.

Here are some quick links to help you learn more about James McGowan Ensemble and their work:

* Official website                            * James McGowan Facebook                     * Modasaurus Facebook

* Instagram                        * Spotify                              * Bandcamp                       * YouTube Channel