Oscar Peñas: A Music Man on a Mission

A Spanish jazz musician finds his home with international collaborations

smithsonian.com

Peñas is currently working on a new album. Photo by Kristofer Dan-Bergan

Jazz guitarist Oscar Peñas is on a journey to build an authentic jazz voice; a personal style that communicates his depth of feeling for the music that captivated him and his friends as teens growing up in his native Spain and that now tells the story of his American journey. “It’s a work and progress,” he said sighing.  An exhilarating and sometimes scary ride that challenges him to overcome the confines of his classical guitar training and European formalism even as it invites him to celebrate them.

“But that’s why I like jazz,” he says, “for its openness. It is music you can integrate your culture in to.  It is the most authentic sound of North American culture.”  Past and present.

Jazz, America’s original music, is embedded with more than 100 years of American slave and immigrant history. In its rhythms, one can almost hear and feel the multicultural history it represents. Jazz can showcase the history of America’s progress towards democracy and its  shortcomings in equity and inclusion. But jazz is not just about America’s past. Peñas, and other artists like him, represents a growing underground of edgy, internationally diverse musicians for whom jazz is gaining resonance and a fan base that crosses generations and borders.

Oscar Peñas and Gil Goldstein playing together, along with Moto Fukushima. Photo by Wayne Tucker

This April, Jazz Appreciation Month will celebrate JAM with the theme “The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz” to honor the historic and evolving multiculturalism of jazz worldwide, facilitated through celebrations like JAM and UNESCO’s International Jazz Day.

Leading the vanguard are noted and emerging jazz artists like Peñas, Danilo Perez, Esperanza Spalding, Elijah Jamal Balbed, and the group Slum Gum, many in collaboration with venerated jazz masters like Randy Weston, Gil Goldstein, Cecil Taylor, and Wayne Shorter, among others. They highlight jazz’s heritage, are building its legacy and demonstrate daily, why jazz is America’s original music, a beloved global cultural treasure.

Peñas grew up with the music of artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and other jazz pioneers. They’re viewed today as “traditional” jazz artists, he said, but were the social and musical rebels of their time. Their music inspired him to find and to live his passion, and he believes their music and messages are instructive for youth searching for purpose and pathways today.

“They were innovators when they came out,” he said excitedly. “Using teamwork and their listening process” they made great music that pushed artistic boundaries and the social status quo.  “And if you learn to communicate and do something in common,” through music that is transformative, “that can’t be a bad thing,” he reasons.

His new album will feature collaborations with Esperanza Spalding, Jason Palmer and others. Photo by Kristofer Dan-Bergan

Today the 41-year-old guitarist works with friends and mentors like Goldstein and NEA Jazz Master Taylor to compose and perform his own boundary pushing music that he hopes has resonance with his peers and the next generation. Inspiration, he said, is drawn from the ups and downs of everyday life, as well as political and social issues.

Consider Julia, a hauntingly beautiful tune performed with Goldstein on accordion—an atypical but expressive jazz instrument.  The tune’s bolero rhythm celebrates life, joy and the lyricism of Spain, Peñas says. It also mourns a death, the loss of his beloved nine-year-old cousin, Julia, who died of a rare genetic disorder while Peñas was home for the Christmas holidays in 2006.

“I wrote it a few days after she passed.  It was kind of my therapy to express that tremendous loss.  It came along very fast.”

Music of Departures and Returns is an emerging project with band mates Franco Pinna, a native of Argentina, and Moto Fukushima, a native of Japan. It confronts “the question mark of where’s home,” says Peñas, and explores the feelings of immigrants in a world of global citizens. Though he has lived in the U.S. for many years, Peñas admits to feeling ungrounded.  “I don’t know where home is anymore,” he says. “For me Brooklyn, New York, feels like home. And my original hometown feels like home too.” So do other places. The eight track CD will feature guest performances by Spalding and trumpeter Jason Palmer, among others, exploring diverse cultures.

Recognized by the ASCAP Lab for New Composers, Peñas says his quest is to deepen his musical voice while maintaining its personal and professional integrity. Friends and mentors like Goldstein and Taylor are helping. With them gigs and neighborhood jam sessions easily flow into life lessons about music, cultural history and risk taking that keep him real.

A few years ago, he remembered a wake up call delivered by Taylor. “I like what you’re doing but I don’t know why you don’t use your cultural background more,” said the classically trained African American jazz pianist known for his own expansive cultural roots and boundary pushing music.

Peñas reflected on the comment and used it to transform his music.”He was telling me I was doing good,” he says. “I just didn’t sound authentic.”

Joann Stevens of the American History Museum.

Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure.  JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Hawai`i’s Troubadour of Aloha and Remembering Dave Brubeck, Goodwill Ambassador.

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