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James McGowan and Jesse Stewart improvise music from many streams

Ottawa pianist James McGowan has directed choirs, performed classical recitals, composed a musical theatre song cycle, and written for a jazz fusion group.

James McGowan will combine his classical influences with drummer Jesse Stewart's free jazz in an improvised concert at GigSpace on March 11 ©Brett Delmage, 2012

And he'll bring all that compositional experience with him when he performs a freely improvised jazz concert with percussionist Jesse Stewart on Friday at GigSpace.

McGowan and Stewart, both professors of music at Carleton University, have played together at the university a number of times, but Friday's show will be their first more public performance. As before, the music they'll play will be created completely in the moment – nothing written in advance.

“When I perform with Jesse, yes, we groove,” McGowan told “We'll go into a gospel groove, or we'll go into this free jazz thing. We'll do some Stravinsky abstraction, and then we'll do some very atmospheric things.”

“But all those things, they're created in real-time as compositions. And because Jesse has a compositional mindset, and I have a compositional mindset, and we're both performers, we both fundamentally understand that sense of creativity as opposed to simply performing a work. I think that's really why Jesse and I get along so well – because we're composers and that's the level the performance is really connecting at.”

The two started playing together after McGowan started at Carleton in 2010, although they'd met briefly before that. They realized they shared a common interest in improvised music. “It became more and more apparent that there was a pretty strong connection in our playing.”

“The way I really see the two of us working is that Jesse has a way of fully utilizing an instrument. So whether it's a drumset or whether it's a cardboard box, he's able to work within the limitations of the medium, the instrument, and fully find its sonic resources in particular.”

“I think of the same thing as a challenge, and so I focus on one instrument. I've chosen a piano, typically a grand piano, and I don't rely strictly on the notes. I use the instrument as a percussion instrument, I play inside [on the strings]. But I think of my box, my limitations as the instrument itself.”

Playing the full piano – not just the keyboard

On Friday, McGowan will be playing the GigSpace grand piano, but not just via the keyboard. “The last show I did with Jesse, I branched out into preparing a piano – just experimenting with it, to see how that affects our spontaneity. That's a problem with prepared piano in that you do limit yourself in a different way by how you prepare the piano. So I did it in a very minimal way and it was quite successful. So I do plan to have a few tricks up my sleeve in preparing.”

He might, for example, place paper or a pen on the strings (which could be easily removed later) for a buzzing sound, or add paper clips to the strings. “So nothing that would hurt a piano, obviously. But certainly things that create either a metallic sound to it or dampen a sound to create more of a thud if I want more of a percussive effect.”

He also uses the wooden frame of the piano as percussive instrument, by tapping on it. On Friday, he said, he'll “spend however long it's necessary, half an hour, an hour, just setting up the piano, checking out the resonances of different places. I have an idea of the sound I'm looking for, so if I'm not going to get that sound hitting the piano in this spot, I'm going to try hitting it in another spot.”

McGowan said he was inspired by Stewart's “100% commitment to the moment. That sense of commitment is, in itself, inspiring, but that commitment that he has to that moment translates into him just being able to tap into his wealth of resources and styles, whether it's jazz styles or any number of jazz-influenced styles or world music influences.”

That affects how they perform together, too.

“He's able to equally listen as well to produce, and he has this remarkable sense: I play one little thing, and he picks up on that, and it subtly influences what he does. And it could happen on a one-to-one basis or it could be happening on multiple levels of interaction. And this deep listening that he does, it just blows my mind, and it inspires me to listen equally deeply, as much as I can, to pick up on his subtle timbral changes and rhythmic changes. And it's that interplay that I actually love.”

I play one little thing, and he picks up on that, and it subtly influences what he does. And it could happen on a one-to-one basis or it could be happening on multiple levels of interaction. And this deep listening that he does, it just blows my mind, and it inspires me to listen equally deeply, as much as I can, to pick up on his subtle timbral changes and rhythmic changes. And it's that interplay that I actually love.
– James McGowan

The music is very intense, and “can change very quickly but we tend to explore a sound idea for a little bit of time. That time varies based upon any number of factors, but it tends to be, 'What can we do with this idea?' We explore it for a while, and then a subtle change, either completely takes us in a different direction or simply adds to the mix of that one idea.”

“So it's that sense of developing an idea or a set of ideas that allows us to grow the piece organically. But not rushing it, either.”

The last time the two played together was a noon-hour concert at Carleton on January 29 – and the ideas they developed at that show may affect Friday's show, McGowan said.

“Every time we've played, even if there's been a year since we've played before, what I find is that we pick up where we left off. And I'm pretty confident that we've developed a number of ideas in our last concert, and I'm pretty sure that we'll be picking up those ideas, and moving forward.”

But beyond that intuitive memory, they don't set starting points or advance parameters for their shows.

“One thing I'm learning in playing with Jesse is that I completely trust him. I think we will not set any parameters prior to the show. The last concert we did, the only parameters we set was that I said something like, I'd like to do some large dynamic changes and some wonderful contrasts. That was what we were going to do anyways.”

“So there's really no need to set the stage, to come up with a battle plan.”

Playing free improv provides a good contrast to his academic research on topics like jazz harmony, McGowan said. In his research, “I look for systemic organization, I look for patterns, and I look for understanding language in musical language change. And I find that the creative work that I do with free improvisation allows me to play off those expectations and stylistic patterns, and basically conscientiously throw them away, or use them as necessary. So it basically allows me to find the freedom. The other work might be fascinating, but still constraining.”

Musical theatre, choral music, classical piano – and jazz fusion with Modasaurus

McGowan is currently on a one-year sabbatical from Carleton University. He said the break from teaching has allowed him to concentrate on larger projects “that I now have the creative space in my brain to explore”.

James McGowan and the HML Trio played several of the songs they've rehearsed as Modasaurus at the trio's third anniversary jam at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge. ©2016 Brett DelmageTogether with vocalist Thandie Dice, he's working on a song cycle, a full-length jazz/musical theatre/singer-songwriter project. He said he's finished writing the music, and they're now rehearsing and revising it, in preparation for individually performing some of the pieces from it, and working out how to stage it.

McGowan tapped into his classical piano side by performing a full-length memorized classical piano recital in three shows in January. He's also created choral arrangements which will be premiered by the Atlantic Voices Choir in May.

And he's formed a new jazz fusion group with the members of the HML Trio (Alex Moxon, J.P. Lapensée, and Jamie Holmes - all graduates of the Carleton U music school) which they've dubbed “Modasaurus”. The first part of the name indicates “we're not dealing with traditional scales, but we're dealing with various modes. And the guys wanted to create a sense that we're a very powerful, imposing, prehistoric creature [he laughs]. Basically, they didn't want to call us the funky jazz group from Ottawa – they wanted to come up with a name that was a little bit different.”

They're playing McGowan's compositions, which he said tie many different musical influences together in a jazz fusion context. “I've taken some of the things I was working previously with Wayne Eagles, and applied it to more of a funky, contemporary sound, and then I've written a whole bunch of new pieces. These just guys are just fantastic. They like the challenge of playing these pieces.”

At the HML Trio's third anniversary jam at Brookstreet in January, they previewed several pieces. Modasaurus will perform a full concert at GigSpace in May.

With all this compositional work, McGowan said he found it refreshing to play completely improvised music with Stewart. “A lot of these projects have different degrees of organization and compositional design, and I can use that same mindset – but intensified into a limited time period – and do it in real-time.”

Unlike previous shows, he and Stewart will be able to hear themselves again afterwards, because the GigSpace show will be recorded. “Every show that we've done, we have been pleased with at least a good chunk of it. We just haven't recorded anything of what we've done so far.”

    – Alayne McGregor

James McGowan and Jesse Stewart will perform at GigSpace at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 11, 2016. Admission is $20.

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