Oscar Peñas’ Graceful New Album Reflects a Jazz of Many Colors

Jazz guitarist Oscar Peñas. Photo by J. Katz.
Jazz guitarist Oscar Peñas. Photo by J. Katz.

Catalan-born, New York-based jazz guitarist Oscar Peñas has released his fourth album and second U.S. release, Music of Departures & Returns, featuring his original pieces and arrangements of jazz and Brazilian standards. He is accompanied by three other members of his jazz ensemble quartet: 6-string electric bassist Moto Fukushima, drummer Richie Barshay and violinist Sara Caswell and three special guests–bass player and chanteuse Esperanza Spalding, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and pianist Gil Goldstein who, on this recording, plays accordion.

Click on image for iTunes® Store link.
Click on image for iTunes® Store link.

The album opens with the graceful, gently swinging, Paquito’s Choro , a piece that he wrote and dedicated to Paquito D’Rivera.

Peñas, who started his musical career as a classical guitarist in Barcelona at the age of 8 on through age 17, graduated from The Berklee School of Music and earned his Masters degree in jazz from the New England Conservatory of Music. He also studied classical guitar with Javier Olondo, a Cuban guitarist and former pupil of Eliot Fisk. However, when Peñas started to explore jazz, he knew he had found his calling.

“My first jazz guitar teacher at the Taller de Musics in Barcelona, Vicenç Solsona, had also studied classical guitar and had an impeccable fingerpicking technique, so he understood perfectly where I was coming from and what were my creative concerns,” Peñas says. “Jazz opened up my mind harmonically and in so many other ways that made me learn more about my instrument and, paradoxically, about classical music as well. “Listening to Pat Metheny’s Letter from Home and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer, it led me to works by Toninho Horta, Gismonti and Milton Nascimento. All this music opened doors to a sea of possibilities. That is how I came to learn the choro.

“I didn’t study choro formally but I listened to a lot and I love Pixinguinha and Guinga. If you ask a purist, perhaps he won’t approve of the form or the harmonies of ‘Paquito’s Choro,’ but this is my unpretentious take on the form.”

Peñas met D’Rivera through his manager. “I gave him a copy of my previous CD From Now On, which has two choros on it. D’Rivera liked the music so I asked him if he would like to record another choro that I wrote and dedicated to him and he enthusiastically agreed to participate.”

The track Rabo De Nube (feat. Esperanza Spalding), a standard from the Cuban Nueva Trova songbook, opens with a striding, arpeggiated guitar riff that carries throughout as singer Esperanza Spalding scats in a whispery style that blooms into lyrics that float over the top. As a child, Peñas remembers hearing the music of singer-songwriters more than anything else. “That is how I’m familiar with [Cuban singer songwriter] Silvio Rodriguez,” he says. “I love ‘Rabo de Nube,’ and it’s a tune that has been played in jazz by Charles Lloyd, Charlie Haden and Danilo Pérez among others.”

“I met Esperanza through one of my longest friends who happens to be her pianist,” Peñas says. “At a dinner party, I played for her the original recording by Silvio Rodríguez of “Rabo de Nube” and she loved it right away so I wrote an arrangement of the song and we recorded it for this album.”


Another highlight on the album is Peñas’ lyrical tribute to flamenco master Paco de Lucia, a sophisticated and unexpected combination of violin, electric guitar and percussion all veering toward the flavor of flamenco with bass note undertones in a 6/8 rhythm. While the piece is intended to evoke a mood—the feel of flamenco–it does not attempt to mimic or make an explicit reference to De Lucia’s playing.


The track The Everyday Struggle showcases Caswell’s violin playing in a minor key with a spry swing paired with Goldstein’s accordion and reveals Peñas’ delight with the tango, to which he has added some jazz-style improvisation after the style of Argentine new tango master, Astor Piazzolla.


As for the track Canço No. 6, by Frederic Mompou, a Catalonian 20th century composer, Peñas recalls first hearing a bit of this piece by Mompou as a theme for the TV news when he was a child. When it came to the decision to close the album with this melody, he says, “We discussed opening the piece up for improvisation and finally we decided it was beautiful just as it is. We tweaked a few things but I believe we respected Mompou‘s spirit.”

“This collection of pieces reflects more or less who I am,” explains Peñas. “Some are mine and some written by other composers whom I have always admired and ultimately each track shares a common mood and a certain sound that reflects my personality and the essence and spirit of where I come from.

“I was not born here in the U.S. and I did not grow up here. Settling in NYC was a kind of wake-up call as I realized that in order to break through into one of the most vibrant music scenes on the planet I had to be honest and that meant digging into my own culture to find and express my own personal musical voice.”

Peñas, who has won the ASCAP Plus Award for his works, is now based in New York, where he performs, composes and teaches at the 92nd Street Y School of the Arts.

“Berklee gave me a great foundation and I had the opportunity to study with many excellent teachers such as Jon Damian, Mick Goodrick and Luciana Souza,” Peñas says.  After graduating, Peñas returned to Barcelona, where he taught, played and released his first two albums before he decided to return to the U.S. to pursue his Masters degree at NEC with the pianist, composer and educator Charlie Banacos.

While living in Barcelona from 2000 to 2005, Peñas served as an interpreter for guest artist guitarists who came to play at the Jazz Festival and speak at the accompanying seminar.

“It was interesting for me to experience the sound projection of John Scofield up close. He was not using any effects at all and he playing clean with an amp that was not his first choice,” Peñas says. “His sound comes from his unique articulation, no doubt. The experience that I treasure most of all is when I translated a master class for the late Jim Hall.

“Jim Hall was, and still is, one of my guitar heroes, along with Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti,” Peñas says. “Getting to speak with Hall confirmed my admiration. He was a giant yet he was very humble at the same time. After translating the class I had the opportunity to interview him for a publication I was collaborating with and I have recently shared it on my Soundcloud page after Jim’s passing—please feel free to listen.

“In terms of cultural differences between Barcelona and New York, I like living and working here because I find there is more diversity. There are more musicians whom I can play with and more opportunities. People are generally more open-minded about music and their sight-reading skills are generally better. These skills help a lot when you are trying to play original music,” Peñas says.

“When I was living in Spain, I found that many within the jazz community to be obsessed with be-bop, which is a wonderful language and tradition and a great source of inspiration but it is not part of the culture there. That fact always shocked me.

“Here in New York when some of the musicians of your ‘working band’ cannot make the gig, there is no drama. There will be always someone who can replace them and do an excellent job. This was not always the case in Barcelona. It may have changed a bit since 2005 because there are three conservatories with many young students, but at the same time, there is still just one club that programs live music on a daily basis. What I sometimes miss about Barcelona is the lifestyle and its architecture and food–but who wouldn’t miss that?

Reflecting on his future plans, Peñas says, “I’m in the process of becoming a more personal guitarist and will be writing more original compositions that embrace, in a very open way, the genres that I’ve always liked and enjoyed listening to. These styles will have their hints of flamenco, Argentinian, Brazilian music, singer-songwriters and classical music and will transcend jazz yet jazz will be the element that gives them coherence.”

Most of the music for his ensemble’s next recording date is already written and the album will be more acoustic, featuring a quartet accompanied by piano.  It will include some special guests artists as well. “As soon as the logistics are in place, we will record again,” Peñas says, “hopefully sometime in 2015.”

Guitarist Oscar Peñas.  Photo by J. Katz.
Guitarist Oscar Peñas. Photo by J. Katz.

For more information on Oscar Peñas and the Oscar Peñas Ensemble.

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