Living a musical life: Academic, pianist, improviser … James McGowan charts his own unique sonic path

James McGowan getting to the heart of the music.

James McGowan loves to improvise on his piano. It’s at the heart of his musical being.

“When I release myself from stylistic confines, I just use my ears and go with the flow. There are so many wonderful things that come from that place where you are not entrenched and just creating.”

Indeed. And the creating has lead to two new CDs for the Carleton University music professor and pianist.

The first of these new discs will be showcaased at a weekend concert. On the same bill is a separate recording by the multi-faceted Jesse Stewart. And both men recorded with the Korean percussionist Dong Won-Kim who was an artist in resident at Carleton in 2016.

Dong is “a phenomenal percussionist,” McGowan says. “We jammed together and we really clicked. So we put together a live concert and hired recording engineer.” And voila, a record, called Over the Mountain, was made.

McGowan is a music theorist, pianist, and composer. He studies the theory and analysis of tonal jazz and popular music along with 18th- and 19th-century art music. At Carleton he teaches music theory, musicianship and composition.

“But I consider myself as an improviser first. It’s my true love. Of course, jazz is the normal medium for that.”

He is however classically trained, but not from the very beginning.

In McGowan’s family home in Toronto there was a piano. The only person who played it was an aunt who learned popular songs by ear. And so that’s what young James did too. He taught himself to play by ear and continued on with that until his ability warranted learning how to read music.

“But that’s not my first love. It was learning by ear, by improvising. Everyone has a natural state of being and a way of expressing himself.” And that’s McGowan’s.

“I like to find the connections between sounds. So I will pluck the inside of the piano. Or I will tap on the side of the piano with the sustain pedal down. It does create non-traditional piano sounds.”

In that way you can connect with a percussionist such as Dong who plays drums and singing bowls.Other, as he has in the past, work with musicians such as Ian Tamblyn and Kalle Mattson.

McGowan says his intention in a performance is “to create (music) that resonates with the audience. I want to reach the audience where they are at and bring them into a sound space that allows them to realize that we are trying to move beyond traditional forms. In that way we are trying to change the sense that time is passing. That is a challenge, that is where the magic, or the spiritual side comes into play. That’s where I want to go.

McGowan is so  connected to sound that it can be hard for him in larger crowds “to pick out the words. If I really focus I can, but musical sounds speak much louder than words in so many ways.”

Music is a language of its own and McGowan is highly attuned to it.

McGowan also plays in ensembles and one of them is called Modasaurus. This group features three former students of McGowan’s who have formed the HML Trio. This CD will be released on Feb. 10 at GigSpace. HML is Jamie Holmes on drums, Alex Moxon on guitar and Jean-Phillipe Lapensée on bass.

McGowan is also part of another band called the Evensong Ensemble with reed player Peter Woods, who is also the minister at MacKay United Church in Ottawa. This latter band, McGowan says, plays pop songs with a jazz sensibility.

Another musical side of McGowan’s is choral composition and directing.

He started investigating vocal music when he suffered an arm injury in early his 20s and that left him looking for musical stimulation while he healed.

“I focused on voice. I took voice lessons and I learned choral conducting.” He started conducting in churches and at various universities where he worked, including at Carleton.

These days, he is concentrating on one choir at Trinity United Church.

“To me music-making is very interpersonal. I love working with amateur choirs, with young people and with the elderly. I love the community music side of things. My primary goal is not how amazing can make it. It’s what we can create together.”

This is even affecting his academic work where he is moving away from “high brow” music theory.

“The crisis I have been struggling with most of my adult life is is what I am doing relevant? Am I making a difference? Now I am doing community music and it’s tying all together.”

Dong-Won Kim Double CD Release Concert with Jesse Stewart and James McGowan
When: Jan. 27 at 3 p.m.
Where: Glebe-St. James United Church, 656 Lyon St. S.
Tickets at the door: $20 and $10 for students and seniors.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.