Jazz meets classical meets contemporary with a touch of spoken word, James McGowan Ensemble’s Reaching In is the second album I’ve grown rather fond of recently despite being extremely far outside my standard wheelhouse. For me, the “Imagine” trilogy of spoken word performance sprinkled throughout the album is where the Ensemble hits most close to home, but the largely instrumental album is a stellar listen from the first note to the last.
The concept for the album seems to be an expansion on the “Imagine” poem itself, with lines from the poem appearing in track titles and musical concepts of songs seemingly tied closely to the words of the poem. Originally recited at a live concert in 2022, James has clearly woven this poem into a larger concept album that showcases contemplation of the world’s ills and life’s struggles with incredible music compositions performed by an all-star cast of musicians alongside James himself.
The second part of the “Imagine” trilogy within the album is my personal favorite, with a jazzy backdrop and the same type of poetic feel you get from the beat poets and early hip hop. If one could imagine what Def Jam style poetry performance may have felt like if performed in an earlier time with a true jazz canvas to paint on, this is exactly the vibe I get from the poem – particularly this section of the poem.
The album’s influences clearly come from a large variety of musical inspiration. With smooth jazz in some tracks giving way to big band era style or classical flow. Sometimes the jazzy flow is less “smooth jazz” and more Chicago. A few moments within certain tracks even feel a bit country or Western inspired. Fans of instrumental music, especially with a jazz flair, will no doubt love this album.