Oscar Penas: From Barcelona to Brooklyn
AAJ: At what point were you awarded a partial scholarship to the New England Conservatory?
OP: I studied at the New England Conservatory from 2005 to 2007. I filled out the scholarship forms, submitted my recordings, and was accepted and awarded a partial scholarship.
AAJ: While at the Conservatory you came into contact with a lot of established and up-and-coming musicians. In fact, you studied with pianist Danilo Perez.
OP: Everybody wanted to study with Danilo because he was so enthusiastic about teaching and he has such a great attitude.
AAJ: Tell me about Danilo's classes and his teaching methods.
OP: Sometimes we accompanied one another. Other times he used the piano as a percussion instrument or played the melodica (wind piano). Sometimes we jammed with the other students. His classes were usually about 2 1/2 hours long.
AAJ: You also met a lot of American musicians in Spain.
OP: Earlier, you asked me about the jazz scene in Spain. Well, Jorge Rossy and Fresh Sound New Talent had a lot to do with that because he traveled to and from New York and was responsible for bringing a lot of New York musicians to Spain, like pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonists Mark Turner, Chris Creek, Seamus Blake and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
AAJ: So it was sort of an "unofficial" cultural exchange program.
OP: Yes, during the '90s, there was an interconnection between Spain and New York. A lot of musicians came to Spain because the vibe is more relaxed, it was easier to get gigs and the rents were affordable. Sometimes they just came because they needed a break from New York.
AAJ: You were an established musician in Spain. What prompted you to pack up your belongings and move to New York?
OP: I left Spain for creative reasons. In Spain there are more things to do. I was teaching and performing, but it was just too easy to get into a comfort zone. In my opinion, that's not where a creative artist should be.
AAJ: So you moved to New York because you felt that you were getting too comfortable and you wanted to challenge yourself creatively?
OP: Yeah, I wanted to study more and find new things to practice, so I applied for a Master's Degree. American culture is not new to me; I went to school in the states and I have a lot of friends there. In fact, Javier Vercher is herehe lives in Brooklyn. So basically, I knew it was going to be challenging and that I was going to have to start my career from scratch. Over the years, I have learned that you can't impress anyone by being a virtuoso or playing standards. Most jazz standards were created in the U.S., so what can I possibly add? I have learned that the public likes musicians who do their own thing. That's what I am trying to do.
AAJ: Of course, there was no way you could have possibly imagined that the U.S. economy was going to be in such a state. But that's a story for another day, and of course, the music business marches on. I understand that you are part of a flourishing new music scene in Brooklyn.
OP: Yes. I guess by now you've heard that the Knitting Factory is coming to Brooklyn.
AAJ: Yes, it's a sign of the times. You are currently involved with two groups, the BOB Trio (as a co-leader) and the Oscar Penas Group. Who is BOB?
OP: (Laughs) The BOB Trio is myself, Bridget Kearney on bass and Brian Landrus on woodwinds. We all studied at the New England Conservatory and moved to New York. It's a drum less group founded in 2008, and it originally began as a tribute to tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre.
AAJ: Jimmy Giuffre's music was a bit on the eclectic side, full of surprises.
OP: We all share a tremendous love and respect for Giuffre's music. In addition, the instrumentation is the same as "The Train and the River," which he recorded in the 1950s, and is one of his most popular recordings. We are all leaders in our own right, so eventually the repertoire evolved from standards to original material.
AAJ: In a word, what's the BOB Trio's mission?
OP: To swing as hard as we can!
AAJ: Tell me about the Oscar Peñas Group and its members.
OP: The group is grounded in the jazz tradition, but we take a very free approach. We explore folkloric genres and rhythms such as Flamenco, Argentinean Chacarera, Milonga, Zamba and various cross-pollinations of other musical traditions. The members are myself, saxophonist Dan Blake, bassist Daniele Camarda and drummer Franco Pinna.
AAJ: How do you describe, or categorize your music?
OP: My music is a blend of what I like: Flamenco, Brazilian music, jazz, the music of Astor Piazzolla. If I had to use a specific term to describe it I guess I would call it a melting pot.
AAJ: The press has often compared you to Pat Metheny. The implication being, "If you like Pat Metheny's music, you will like Oscar Peñas." Though I wouldn't go as far as comparing your music to his, I get the distinct feeling that he is one of your major influences.
OP: I have been listening to Pat since my early days. In my second album, The Return of the Astronautus, there are two tracks where I consciously tip my hat to Pat: "Super Nona" and "San Patricio," which in Spanish means "Saint Pat."