Oscar Peñas

Music of Departures and Returns

Catalan guitarist, composer and bandleader Oscar Peñas has compiled an outstanding cast for his fourth CD, Music of Departures and Returns. Born in Barcelona, Peñas began classical guitar as a child and later graduated with honors from Berklee College of Music after which he earned a Masters Degree in Jazz Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. Peñas explains, "I started to explore jazz a bit out of boredom. As a teenager (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.”

Music of Departures and Returns features Peñas working quartet which is comprised of six-string electric bassist Moto Fukushima, drummer Richie Barshay, and violinist Sara Caswell. The CD features numerous special guests such as: bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and pianist, accordion and arranger Gil Goldstein who appears on accordion. “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.”

The CD starts with a Peñas original “Paquito's Choro.” Structurally, a choro styled composition has three parts, played in a rondo form: AABBACCA, with each section in a different key. Usually a choro has a fast and happy tempo and is characterized by virtuosity, improvisation, syncopations and counterpoint. Choro is considered the first characteristically Brazilian genre of urban popular music. Peñas describes his thoughts about the choro, "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." The selection starts with a solo guitar intro from Peñas with hits from Fukushima’s bass and Richie Barshay’s drum set. D’Rivera’s clarinet states the medium tempo melody with Peñas doubling it and playing chords. An interlude has Peñas revisiting the color of the intro which leads to a new melodic statement. The second melodic statement makes good use of wide intervals and motivic development and is again stated by Peñas and D’Rivera. Fukushima’s bass and Barshay’s drum set keep the light bossaish feel in the pocket for a fine solo from D’Rivera. Peñas’ solo begins with a focus on developing small melodic phrases as he builds to a series of developments of the wide intervals used in the second statement of the melody. Peñas seems to focus on forming musical statements and not displaying technicality. The melody is revisited in its entirety with an ending statement.

“The Everyday Struggle” is a wonderful duet between Goldstein’s accordion and Caswell’s violin set to a medium slow tango feel. The selection speaks to Peñas’ fascination with the tango, suggesting the genre´s Vieja Guardia (Old Guard) sound, with old European tints. Peñas has been influenced by the music of the Argentine New Tango master Astor Piazzolla, but while at Berklee, Peñas met a bandoneón player who taught him a lot about the music's history and other players. Peñas’ solo is underpinned by a flow accompaniment from Goldstein’s accordion, as he explores the melodic possibilities of the tango beat. Caswell’s warm violin tone and fluidity of phrase is very enjoyable as she exchanges musical phrases with Goldstein until the two build to a simultaneous improvisation which leads us back to the statement of the melody and out.

Music of Departures and Returns is an enjoyable collection of styles and sounds from around the world presented with heart felt joy and clarity. The music will certainly leave the listener with a joyful and playful feeling; Peñas’ focus on making good heartfelt music is a breath of fresh air.

Personnel: Oscar Penas: Guitars; Sara Caswell: Violin (4,5,6,7); Moto Fukushima: Six String Electric Bass (4,5,6,7,8); Richie Barshay: Drums (4,5,6,7,8) Cajon (4); Edward Perez: Bass (1,2); Rogerio Boccato: Drums & Percussion (1,2).
Tracks: Paquito’s Choro; Rabo de Nube; Skylark; Paco; The Everyday Struggle; Etude No. 1; Rain; Cançó No. 6.

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H. Allen Williams