WBGO Radar

Oscar Penas: Music of Departures And Returns

oscar penas

“We end up coming from a lot of different places,” says guitarist Oscar Peñas, a Barcelona native who now lives in New York. “Because we are born in one, study in others, and then go on to live someplace else.”

Music of Departures and Returns, Penas's fourth album, takes us on a tour of the many highlights of his musical journey thus far.

The title evokes Spain's “Cantes de ida y vuelta,” flamenco songs brought home in the 18th and 19th centuries by travelers who, like Peñas, had formative experiences in the New World.

“My music is really Pan-American,” says Peñas, who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory before settling in New York. “We’re not trying to play in any one style, but rather to bring  together influences from across the Americas and Spain.”

“Paquito’s Choro,” which opens the album, is a case in point. Peñas wrote it for the masterful Cuban clarinet of Paquito D’Rivera, in the Brazilian choro style, a kind of proto-jazz which flourished in Rio de Janeiro early in the 20th century, It’s in A minor, a challenging key for woodwinds.

“Paquito joked, ‘I don't know if you wrote it for me – or against me!” Peñas recalls.

“Rabo de nube,” a 1970s classic by Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, features the evocative vocals – in Spanish – of bassist Esperanza Spalding. Peñas plays Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” solo, and his “Paco” is an electric guitar homage to flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía, which takes Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette” as its jumping-off point and features violinist Sara Caswell.

“The Everyday Struggle” is inspired by Argentine tango, and features the accordion of Gil Goldstein. “Etude No. 1” is a playful, rocked-out variation on a theme by Bach.

“Rain” is a swing waltz, inspired by the works of Canadian composer Kenny Wheeler, and “Cancó Numero 6” brings us back to Barcelona, through the work of Catalan composer Frederic Mampou.

Throughout, the album displays Peñas’s confident and clear phrasing, which is cast into high relief through interplay with Caswell’s violin, as well as with Moto Fukushima on bass and Ricky Barshay on drums and percussion.

Peñas performs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcafé on April 18th at 9 p.m.

   - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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