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Oscar Penas: From Barcelona to Brooklyn


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I have learned that you can't impress anyone by being a virtuoso or just playing standards. The public appreciates musicians who do their own thing, and that's what I am trying to do.
Oscar Peñas belongs to a generation of artists who believe there is more to being a musician than being technically proficient. Like his peers—many of whom are emerging, independent musicians—his music reflects his roots, his impressive credentials and his openness to new ideas and concepts. Oscar is part of a flourishing new music scene in Brooklyn where emerging artists gather to experiment, exchange ideas and create music that is changing the face of jazz.

All About Jazz: You were born in Spain.

Oscar Peñas: Yes, I was born in Barcelona.

AAJ: What was it like growing up in Barcelona? Did you grow up in a musical environment?

OP: No I didn't, but my grandfather was a professional musician.

AAJ: What is your grandfather's name?

OP: His name is Joan Cambray. He played as a sideman and section player with the Xavier Cugat orchestra, the Gran Gala, Jose Guardiola and Antionio Machin and the Savannah Ballroom orchestras.

AAJ: How did you come to the guitar?

OP: I started playing the guitar when I was nine years old. At the time I was in [Spain's equivalent to] the Boy Scouts and there was always somebody who played the guitar, so I learned a few chords and started playing by ear. After that, I began taking private lessons.

AAJ: Initially, you weren't quite so sure that you wanted to be a musician.

OP: Yes, I actually studied law for two years, but I realized that I was wasting my time so I turned my attention towards becoming a professional musician. In 1989 I began my studies at the Taller de Musics. It was one of the first schools in Spain to teach jazz formally.

AAJ: What kind of courses did the Taller offer?

OP: There were courses in harmony, ear training, ensembles and core courses. I was fortunate to be able to study the guitar with people like Vicens Solsona, Sean Levitt (who passed away recently), Horacio Fumero and Mario Rossy.

AAJ: Who are some of your early influences?

OP: As I mentioned previously, my family is not musical, so the music that was played in my home was mostly traditional singers and songwriters from the '60s and '70s.

AAJ: Who are some of your early jazz influences?

OP: I listened to Pat Metheny and Joe Pass a lot. Then I discovered straight-ahead jazz and Latin jazz, and fell in love with Brazilian music.

AAJ: After you completed your studies at the Berklee College of Music (1997 to 1999), you returned to your hometown and pursued a career as a freelance musician, educator and leader of the Oscar Peñas Group.

OP: Yes, at Berklee I studied with vocalist Luciana Souza, among others. Then I returned to Spain, where I taught at my alma mater, Taller de Musics.

AAJ: You graduated from Berklee summa cum laude.

OP: Then I formed the Oscar Penas Group with saxophonist Javier Vercher. At the time, we were listening to Keith Jarrett's European recordings with Jan Gabarek and the Canadian trumpet player Kenny Wheeler. We were also into modal music, setting up a tonality and improvising on a single chord.

AAJ: Who are the original members of the Oscar Penas Group?

OP: The original members are saxophonist Javier Vercher, Jose Alberto Medina on the electric and acoustic piano, German Fernandez on bass and Mariano Steinberg on drums. We also invited two guests: Guim G. Balasch on alto sax and Luisa Brito on bass.

AAJ: How did the Oscar Peñas Group come to the attention of the record label Fresh Sound New Talent?

OP: Javier was friendly with Jorge Rossy and in turn, Jorge was close with Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sound New Talent.

AAJ: How did your first recording come about?

OP: We recorded the album in the studio, but we weren't sure if it was going to be picked up. After we recorded the album, we played it for Jorge Rossy and he spoke highly of it to Jordi.

AAJ: Which led to the release of your first album, Astronautus (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2003). How did you come up with the name "Astronautus"?

OP: I used to have a roommate that called me by that name.

AAJ: You must have done something to earn it!

OP: I guess I was a little bit crazy. [Laughs.]

AAJ: That explains it! Nevertheless, the recording was well received and three years later you followed up with The Return of Astronautus (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006).

OP: By that time, Javier had moved to New York so it became a slightly different band. We had Jose Medina on the Fender Rhodes and D. Beat Gonzalez on the acoustic and electric bass.

AAJ: Both recordings were highly acclaimed and well received. Switching gears for a moment, describe the jazz scene in Spain.

OP: The interesting and mysterious thing about Spain is that it is very mountainous, so the cities are not interconnected. For example, the people who live in Barcelona do not generally have a relationship with the people in Madrid. Madrid is more into pop, rock and commercial music. Barcelona, on the other hand, had the first jazz schools and is right next door to Valencia, which has a great tradition of horn players. They have "bandas" in every little village.

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 Pérez.

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?

Oscar PenasOP: 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 here—he 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."

AAJ: Obviously there are a lot of other guitarists that have influenced you as well.

OP: From the '80s there's the big three—Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield, but Jim Hall is the biggest influence of all.

AAJ: How so?

OP: He's so humble, so authentic, a non-conformist and he still practices!

AAJ: What about Lionel Loueke? He seems to be taking the guitar to new places.

OP: As well as guys like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder. I am also into pianists, horn players and vocalists.

AAJ: What's on your, iPod as we speak?

OP: On my way to your home I listened to two albums: Radio Mali (Nonesuch,1999) by Ali Farka Toure and I think it's called 1 + 1 (Verve, 1997) by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. If you visit my home, you will hear jazz but you will also hear Gal Costa, Pablo Milanes, Djavan and others.

AAJ: Career-wise and music-wise, where do you see yourself in five years?

OP: I want to do a little bit of everything. I like the duo setting, I enjoy accompanying vocalists and I want to perform as much as possible with my band.

AAJ: Do you have any upcoming recordings in the works?

OP: I hope to record with the BOB Trio and the Oscar Peñas Group this year. I am not sure when we will be going into the studio but I can tell you that we plan to have a number of special guests. We are still in the process of coordinating our schedules so I don't want to reveal too much just yet.

AAJ: What's your take on the current New York music scene? Is it everything you expected it to be?

OP: There are different levels in the music scene. There's the "official" music scene—the big clubs that feature big names—and there is the "unofficial" or "underground" music scene, especially in Brooklyn.

AAJ: Define "underground."

OP: Places like "Tea Lounge," "Barbes" and "Drom," to name a few, where a lot of independent musicians hang out.

AAJ: Who are the members of the group and what is it about the "underground" music scene that appeals to you?

OP: The energy. We have a saying in Spain that says, "Ponen toda la carne en la asadora" [they put all of the meat in the roaster]. Meaning, the musicians always play their best, even when they are not playing in front of a large audience or the crowd is noisy.

AAJ: What kind of impact has living in New York had on your music?

OP: I have come to realize that technique is not everything. I mean, it helps; I practice everyday, but there is already a Kurt Rosenwinkel and a Mark Turner. I don't think that a lot of the musicians in Spain have come to that conclusion. There are a few artists, like pianist Chano Dominguez, who are doing their own thing but many Spanish musicians have a tendency to emulate North American musicians.

AAJ: Before we close is there anything that you would like to add?

OP: I was very lucky to have been around such influential and inspiring people during my time as a student. People like Luciana Souza, Danilo Perez, John Damien, Frank Carlberg and Charlie Banacos. It was great to have their support. Also, I have come to realize that the public appreciates artists who do their own thing in their own way. That's what I am trying to do.

Selected Discography

Oscar Peñas Group, The Return of the Astronautus (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006)
Oscar Peñas Group, introducing Javier Vercher, Astronautus (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2003)

Photo Credits

Top photo: Javier Vercher

All other photos courtesy of Oscar Peñas

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