Catalan guitarist, composer and bandleader Oscar Peñas´ fourth album and second release in the United States, Music of Departures and Returns, includes a Brazilian choro and a tribute to flamenco master Paco de Lucia; a jazz standard and a classic from the Cuban Nueva Trova songbook; and music by the great Catalonian composer Frederic Mompou. Yet this is neither a music sampler nor a showcase of Peñas´ talents in different settings and styles.
"This is more or less who I am. I'm not trying to push boundaries, prove anything or show off in any way," explains Peñas. "It's a collection of pieces, some mine, some by other composers that I have always admired, that I felt had a common mood, a certain sound that reflects my personality and where I come from."
Music of Departures and Returns features his quartet, comprised of his long-standing rhythm section featuring six-string electric bassist Moto Fukushima, drummer Richie Barshay, and violinist Sara Caswell. The band is augmented by special guests such as bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, reedman Paquito D'Rivera and pianist, producer and arranger Gil Goldstein who appears on accordion.
Born in Barcelona, Peñas began his career in music studying classical guitar as a child. He graduated with honors from Berklee College of Music and later earned a Masters Degree in Jazz Performance from New England Conservatory before settling Brooklyn. He arrived at his musical discoveries step by step.
"I started to explore jazz a bit out of boredom. As a teenager (and still is the case) it was more appealing to me to pick up my own melodies within a style and interact with other musicians than spend hours of solitude trying to perfect a technical dexterity and devote my youth to learn a repertoire by others. Discoveries and interests come sometimes erratically... listening to Pat Metheny's Letter from Home or Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer you end up coming across Toninho Horta, Gismonti or Milton [Nascimento] and their music opens doors to a sea of possibilities, that's how I learned about chore.
"I didn't study choro, but listened to a lot of them and love Pixinguinha and Guinga. If you ask a purist, maybe he won't approve of the form or the harmonies of 'Paquito's Choro,' but this is my unpretentious take on it."
As for the recording of the track, which demands a virtuoso performance by the clarinetist, Peñas recalls that at the end of the recording, the irrepressible D´Rivera, a superior player and an excellent reader, quipped, "I don´t know if you wrote this for me or against me."
Being from Barcelona, many would expect a strong flamenco influence and some sort of flamenco-jazz fusion in Peñas' music. He did include a flamenco-tinged piece in his previous album, but he says, while he "grew up with the sound of flamenco around, I never sat down to analyze it or study it. Mine is not an academic approach. I'm no expert. I just let it seduce me and wash over me."
In "Paco," his tribute to guitarist Paco de Lucia, who has marked a before and after in modern flamenco, Peñas features violin and electric guitar, and the 6/8 rhythm evokes the feel of flamenco but again, from a personal perspective, never attempting to mimic or make an explicit reference to De Lucia´s playing.
But in Music of Departures and Returns Peñas features other composer´s songs for the first time in his recorded work and the choices often speak to personal experiences. Such is the case for "Rabo de Nube," a standard from the Cuban Nueva Trova songbook. At home, as a child, Peñas remembers hearing singer/songwriters "more than anything else including classical music, jazz or pop -- and that's how I'm familiar with [Cuban singer songwriter] Silvio Rodríguez," he explains. "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." Featuring Spalding's delicate but expressive singing, Peñas approaches the song with a driving energy and at a faster pace than usual.
"The Everyday Struggle," showcasing Caswell's violin and Goldstein's accordion, speaks to his fascination with tango, hinting at the genre´s Vieja Guardia (Old Guard) sound and the old European take, adding jazz-style improvisation, still something unusual in tango. Peñas knew the music of Argentine New Tango master Astor Piazzolla, but while at Berklee he met a bandoneón player who taught him a lot about the music's history and other players.
As for "Canço No 6," by Frederic Mompou, a Catalonian 20th century composer, not only does Peñas know his music well but he remembers being a little kid and "hearing a bit of a piece by Mompou as a theme for the TV news." But approaching Mompou (1893-1987) was no easy decision. "I was a bit hesitant because not long ago there was big celebration of Mompou and there were a lot of things done with and about his music. But finally I decided to close the album with it -- but without any soloing. We discussed opening [the piece] up for improvisations and finally we decided it was just beautiful as is and we just had to play the melody as it's written. So we tweaked a few things but I believe we respected Mompou's spirit."
As for incorporating all these influences, "there was never a grand plan," he says. "I've been finding music and what I liked, I researched it and add it to my music. I was not born here and I did not grow up here. I like these different styles as much or more than bebop. Settling in NYC was a kind of wake-up call as I realized that in order to break through in the most vibrant scene on the planet I had to be honest and that meant digging into my own culture to find a personal voice."
Upcoming Oscar Peñas Tour Dates:
March 28 / The Side Door / Old Lyme, CT
April 18 / BAMcafé / Brooklyn, NY
November 7 / Strathmore / Bethesda, MD
Oscar Peñas · Music of Departures and Returns · Release Date: April 15, 2014