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James McGowan Ensemble - Reaching In (Self-Released)

6 December 2023

The James McGowan Ensemble is a classic-jazz fusion collective from Ottawa, Ontario, led by composer James McGowan. With members from jazz-fusion quartet Modasaurus joining forces with the string quartet Despax, they released their first album earlier this year called Reaching In. It’s a complex concept album based around the narrative of the protagonist’s growth and personal discovery from hitting rock bottom to finding peace and acceptance. Although it’s the story of one individual, the ambition for the project is huge. The ensemble features thirteen musicians, and the story is told over the duration of sixteen tracks. Reaching In is actually only the first half of the narrative, too, as the second half, titled Reaching Out will be released in 2024.

Reaching In occasionally features spoken word interludes, all titled “Imagine,” but a bit like a soundtrack without a film (yet), the story of Reaching In is largely told through the beautiful expressionism of the instrumentation. Some of the song titles like “Grief and Despair” give clues, but it’s really not necessary as the musicians do a fantastic job at bringing to life the complex emotions and mental state of the protagonist. Everything here is up for grabs from bits and pieces of Latin music to hip hop, but it never feels forced as it all goes to the service of what is being conveyed.

The album ends comparatively more optimistically than it begins, with the closer “Acceptance,” but there remains a touch of uncertainty in the music, as if there is still work to be done. Reaching In is not the first album to tackle these themes, but it’s definitely one of the best and it’s executed with delicacy, great care, and a startling amount of talent.