With Modasaurus, it's never just one thing.

The Ottawa jazz group – pianist James McGowan, guitarist Alex Moxon, bassist J.P. Lapensée, and drummer Jamie Holmes – makes a point of fusing different musical traditions together in their music. Even their name, “Modasaurus”, has multiple meanings.

James McGowan: 'Our goal is to explore and not be limited to a style or rooted in a style, but expand out and just totally challenge ourselves to find the fusion in things that don't necessarily typically find themselves getting fused.' ©Brett Delmage, 2016
James McGowan: 'Our goal is to explore and not be limited to a style or rooted in a style, but expand out and just totally challenge ourselves to find the fusion in things that don't necessarily typically find themselves getting fused.' ©Brett Delmage, 2016

“Our goal is to explore and not be limited to a style or rooted in a style, but expand out and just totally challenge ourselves to find the fusion in things that don't necessarily typically find themselves getting fused,” McGowan told OttawaJazzScene.ca this week. They'll demonstrate how that can be done in their show at the GigSpace Jazz MicroFest on Friday, April 28.

The quartet has “a funky sound, like a jazz core sound, and with that basic sound we're looking at going into other realms. Sometimes it's bluesy, sometimes it explores other traditions: Latin, Middle Eastern. Different sonic environments. Each piece has its own identity but the challenge and the joy of the project is routing all that into a jazz fusion sound that we've been cultivating.”

He emphasized this wasn't in particular rooted in the jazz-rock fusion sound made popular in the 1970s, “but more in the idea of the more broad sense of fusion, always looking to expand and integrate other sounds.”

They'll likely introduce two new pieces at GigSpace, McGowan said. One of these incorporates a North Indian (Hindustani) classical sound – a new source for the group. They'll also be playing music they've recorded for the group's upcoming debut album.

The four started playing together in early 2016, and have performed at various venues: GigSpace, Brookstreet, and shows in local churches. Their original connection was through Carleton University, where McGowan has been a professor of music since 2010, with a background in classical and choral music and contemporary improvisation.

The other three met at Carleton as music students. In 2009, they formed their HML Trio – which recently celebrated its fourth year running the weekly Thursday jazz jams at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge. They're also three-quarters of the Ottawa groove jazz band, The Chocolate Hot Pockets, and play separately and together in many other jazz and pop groups around Ottawa. McGowan also plays with Holmes and Lapensée in the gospel-jazz-pop Evensong Ensemble.

“The HML Trio is some of the busiest people working in the music field here in Ottawa. And they're very versatile – so I think they are able to almost instantly read each other, and then I can fit in well with that,” McGowan said.

The quartet's name, “Modasaurus”, has a complicated parentage. “Moda” refers to modal jazz, but not in particular to modal scales. Rather, McGowan said, it follows the spirit of the modal jazz tradition instigated by Miles Davis and others – creating more loose structures and extended sections where harmony doesn't change.

“We're basically looking to create something new, not following in the tradition of rejecting chord changes and melody and structure, but finding a way to integrate those too. So it's negotiating compromise to create something new.”

The “saurus” originally came from Holmes, who wanted a dinosaur image to evoke the group's “very powerful sound – not so much imposing or scary, but having a lot of energy there."

But it has an alternate interpretation, too, McGowan said: “ 'thesaurus' is another way of using 'saurus'. So instead of 'thesaurus' being something that addresses the multiple meanings of words, 'Modasaurus' talks about modes – not just about modes as in the scales, but also stylistic modes. Different styles.”

J.P. Lapensée (centre) and Alex Moxon (r) listen to James McGowan during Modasaurus' show at Brookstreet last summer ©Brett Delmage, 2016
J.P. Lapensée (centre) and Alex Moxon (r) listen to James McGowan during Modasaurus' show at Brookstreet last summer ©Brett Delmage, 2016

McGowan is the group's composer, but says all four are part of the music's “collective creation”. “What sets us apart is the collective work that we do, all four of us contributing on the compositions that I write for the group.”

“There is this desire to create a sonic identity for the piece and do it justice. So if I present a tune to them and if it's not quite working here, Alex might suggest something, and J.P. gets a little bit groovier on the bass. Or at one point, J.P. took an extended bass solo, and I said, 'Well, let's change the form and let's put a two-minute bass solo up front.' So I think it's that collective identity of respecting a tune and exploring it – and not be trapped into what's written on the page. To recreate it as a living entity. Each tune itself comes alive with the interaction.”

McGowan said he enjoys playing with the other three because, firstly, “on a non-musical level, they are easy to get along with. I need to stress that, because I think all four of us are busy. Why waste time on people you don't get along with? And ultimately we have a lot of fun musically, just creating. So that's a really important starting point.”

“J.P.'s the quiet guy, and yet he has such a presence. He speaks volumes and so many different ideas that come pouring. Each solo is different when we do different takes.”

“Jamie is super-organized, and, in his production, is always trying to get it just right, to his own standards. Even when I'm saying, 'That's fantastic!', [he'll say] 'I think I can do better'. That desire to make the project as strong as possible really sets him up there as someone – why he's so busy, why everyone wants to work with him.”

“And Al, he has this creative mind, this brilliance. His idea of creating a melody is solid, no matter what I put in front of him. There could be a bazillion changes in two bars, or it could be just like one chord. There could be time changes, there could be meter changes. But he can traverse that and still create melody and still create groove. He's just a marvelous player.”

In their music, there's an “interplay between notated and highly detail-oriented versus very fluid and more improvisatory with long dynamic arcs”.

“I guess the best way to categorize these pieces is that they're hard to pull off – in that some sections are highly notated and they're conceived of in a certain specific way. And then when we get through that section, we have another section that is virtually completely free.”

Last fall, the quartet recorded their debut CD, and hope to release it this year, probably in the fall. It's basically finished, McGowan said, but with all of them being so busy with other projects and teaching, they've had difficulty scheduling time for them to sit down together to listen to the final version. “Theoretically it could be ready next week, but we're still taking some time with it.”

“The album sounds great! I'm so excited. We've got a start towards a second album, because we recorded much more than we actually need for one album.”

Their upcoming CD's title has multiple meanings as well. It's “Two Intents” – which can also be heard as “too intense”.

“The project has been about mixing and matching two or more different styles or time signatures or creating these juxtapositions and combinations. And so, with that, some of the titles of these pieces have these multiple meanings, and double entendres at times. So the music, if it's too intense, as in too hard to handle, there are “two intents” or intentions in any given moment. The play on words really is intentional as well, because the music has these moment of go-for-the-gut and it's really visceral, it's right in your face. But other times it's in the head as well.”

Jamie Holmes: "getting it just right" ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Jamie Holmes: "getting it just right" ©Brett Delmage, 2016

McGowan said the group hasn't let their music become static since the recording.

“We are evolving. So when we do a recording, that doesn't become the final version. It just happens to be the version that gets set in stone. But when we play it again, we're taking it in different places. We've been playing with the structure of the tunes. The tunes' integrity – that stays the same. But I think we'll keep the pieces fresh by continuing to play them in ways older and new.”

Modasaurus' show on Friday is part of a celebration GigSpace has organized of Ottawa's jazz scene. That scene has been an important support for McGowan.

Teaching at Carleton has allowed him “to meet a lot of wonderful people: students, alumni, and also colleagues and people in the music scene. That has been a wonderful thing for me personally.”

“I've lived in a number of cities and I've told many people – I think the Ottawa jazz scene is pretty special. I haven't seen a scene as supportive. I don't know if collaborative is the right word, [although] there certainly is tons of collaboration.

“We are competing for gigs, but at the same time we're not going to bring someone down in order to get one. A lot of us have this idea that we're going to try to create new opportunities, which benefits everybody. I have seen just an incredible display of humanity and just a community in there. It's a perception, but for the most part, a lot of the very principal players in this town are just generally nice people. So I think I've really been drawn to the scene in order to take advantage of this, these wonderful opportunities with wonderful people.”

“I think Ottawa is a pretty special place.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Modasaurus will perform at the GigSpace Jazz MicroFest on Friday, April 28, at 9 p.m. Tickets for their 45-minute show are $10, and can be bought on-line, or in person at Alcorn Music Studios, or by calling 613-729-0693. GigSpace is located within Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, beside the O-Train tracks and one long block west of Preston Avenue. OC Transpo route 14 stops in front, and route 85 stops nearby on Preston Avenue.

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