Like many a jazz instrumentalist, guitarist Oscar Peñas began as a student of classical music before turning to what has become a career of creative interaction and collaboration with his musical colleagues. It is a career that has him now set to release his fourth album, Music of Departures and Returns, his second in the U.S., on April 15. If Peñas is anyone to judge by, starting with training in the classics produces some fine results.
Peñas, on this release, works mainly with three stalwarts that includes six-string electric bassist Moto Fukushima, drummer Richie Barshay, and violinist Sara Caswell. On some tracks, he is also supported by guest artists like the award-winning Esperanza Spalding, multi-reed man Paquito D’Rivera, and pianist/arranger Gil Goldstein, who appears here on the accordion.
This release is a set of eight tunes with five originals and unusually for him, three by other composers. “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.”
It is a setlist varied and filled with some of the best Latin jazz colors around. Indeed, before I had gotten around to the album, I had heard two of the tracks on Ken Laster’s excellent podcast In the Groove … Jazz and Beyond. Two out of eight tracks, and after hearing the whole album, it is difficult to figure out how he was able to choose only two, and heaven help me, how he decided on which two. This is an album with eight absolutely winning tracks.
Whether it is the brilliance of the Spalding vocal on the Silvio Rodriguez Cuban classic “Rabo de Nube,” D’Rivera’s clarinet virtuosity on Peñas’ version of the Brazilian choro, “Paquito’s Choro,” or his own flamenco-influenced guitar work on “Paco,” his tribute to guitarist Paco de Lucia, each and every track is special. The melody of “Paco” reminds me of a transformation of the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts” used in Copeland’s Appalachian Spring.
“The Everyday Struggle” is a tango that gives both Goldstein and violinist Caswell a chance to show what they can do, and they make sure to shine. The album ends with a straightforward take on Catalan pianist/composer Frederic Mompou’s “Canço Numero 6 (featuring Gil Goldstein),” in which Peñas decided to go with it pretty much as written. He says, “We tweaked a few things but I believe we respected Mompou’s spirit.”
For Latin jazz, Oscar Peñas and Music of Departures and Returns will be hard to beat. And, by the way, none of the tracks mentioned above were the ones played on the Laster podcast. That ought to give you a good idea of the quality of the album.