Oscar Peñas at The Kennedy Center by Teal Ruland

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Spanish jazz guitarist and composer Oscar Peñas made his Kennedy Center KC Jazz Club debut last evening, exhibiting his awesome fusion of classical guitar laced with smooth, jazzy, Spanish, and South American flavor.

Oscar Peñas. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Oscar Peñas. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Born in Barcelona, Spain, Peñas first learned to play the nylon string guitar. Eventually, he graduated from Berklee College of Music cum laude in 2005 and returned to his home country to teach and perform in festivals and jazz clubs. He then came back to the U.S. to attend New England Conservatory and earn a Masters in Jazz Studies. After he finished his studies with Danilo Perez and Charlie Banacos, among others, he settled in New York.

Peñas recorded his first two albums, Astronauts (2003) and The Return of Astronauts (2005) for the label Fresh Sound and released his third album, From Now On,”with Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records (BJUR), an indie label based in Brooklyn. BJUR emphasizes artist control, ownership, and vision, and Peñas embodies their purpose perfectly; his imaginative and inventive compositions and arrangements are all his own. His newest album, Music of Departures and Returns, was on sale last night for early release, and will be available to the general public in April.

Peñas started last night’s set playing a cool, groovy melody on a funky electric guitar. Peñas had a smooth and precise style, and while he carried the tunes throughout the evening, he seemed to let the other musicians showcase their talents through impressive improvisations. That isn’t to say Peñas didn’t flash his own musical skills, he was merely a gracious and charming bandleader.

Peñas’s second composition, “Choro, n. 1,” set a saucy mood with drummer Richie Barshay’s seductive intro. Barshay also struck gold with his drum solo on the second to last song, mixing styles and rhythms with ease.

While Peña’s more recent collaborations have been with trios, last evening’s intimate performance featured violinist Sara Caswell, and I cannot imagine the group without her. The third piece, an ode to Yorkshire brewery Samuel Smith, was the perfect time in which to showcase her talent. Caswell poured emotion into the evocative and slinky melody, creating an eerie and hair-raising effect as she lightly dragged her bow across the strings. The result was a raw, windswept effect that really made the piece.

Peñas’s selections for the evening, mostly his own compositions and a few borrowed, showcased a fun, smooth range of personality. When the quartet played “The Everyday Struggle,” I couldn’t help but feel that they were really expressing their own everyday struggles to stay so effortlessly cool. Peñas’s choices for the night ranged from groovy-blue, to melancholy, to seductive, to light and airy. Five-string bassist and collaborator Moto Fukushima really kicked it up with his nimble playing on their fourth melody, a buoyant, lighthearted arrangement.

Their last song of the night revealed a slow introduction that gave way into a sassy, fast-fingered banter between the violin and acoustic guitar. The bass and drums joined in on the cheeky fun, and by the end of the piece, there was no question the audience enjoyed every minute of the evening.

Peñas is an ASCAP Plus Award recipient and currently lives in New York.

Oscar Peñas Performed for one night on Friday, February 7, 2014 at the Kennedy Center KC Jazz Club – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future Kennedy Center events, go to their website.