Album Review: The James McGowan Ensemble – Reaching In

It’s often quite intriguing – and musically rewarding – when skilled and creative musicians set about with the goal of bringing together disparate genres. That is the chosen mission of the Ottawa-based James McGowan Ensemble. Pianist and composer McGowan enlists the collaboration of the Modasaurus jazz fusion quartet and a string quartet called Despax; together, all of them (plus four others) create a synthesis of jazz and classical music. It’s not exactly third stream; what it is, is compelling.

On “Imagine, Pt. 1,” lush and keening strings meet with a subtle and supple fusion group, providing a cinematic backdrop for Jamaal Amir Akbari’s spoken-word readings of McGowan’s poetry. The musicians stable and slash, punctuating Akbari’s expressive exposition.

“Thoughts and Prayers” opens in dramatic fashion, too, with a crystalline arrangement that suggests a classically-minded Steely Dan. The wholly instrumental piece is meditative yet multicolored. The brief “Internal Conflict” sounds and feel like the theme music to some climactic on-screen action: a car case, maybe? Catchy stuff.

As its title telegraphs, “Grief and Despair” is a melancholy, string-centric piece that vividly conveys emotion without the use of words. The brighter “Uncertain Future” has a vaguely Vince Guaraldi air about it. “Reaching In” starts out as a piano trio, strings adorn the song’s second half.

“Imagine, Pt. 2” swings and then takes on a slinky urban feel, with Akbar’s recitations holding interest as well. “Time to Rise” skillfully splits the difference between a knotty, proggy approach and something more mainstream. There’s an uptown NYC character to the tasty “Tripping Triceratops.”

“Augmented Reality” makes the most of the string section, but the arrangement shows all of the players – horn section most notably – to excellent effect. A brief linking track, “Simple Reality” features cello and piano at its core, with extra string adding sympathetic accompaniment.

Akiri returns for “Imagine, Pt. 3.” more somber instrumentally than the earlier parts, it’s highlighted by an optimistic lyric. “Inner Peace” marries dissonance with melody, providing a backdrop for more introspective thought. The spare “Inner Child” take a moment or two to make its musical point, but the wait is worth it.

The instrumental “Through My Tears I Smile” sound like its title suggests it would, with bittersweet tones amidst the arrangement. The set concludes with the subtly Afro-Cuban flavored “Acceptance,” a serene and melodic way to wrap up a fascinating and musically luxurious album.