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Oscar Penas: From Barcelona to Brooklyn

Tomas Pena By

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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.


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