With ‘Almadraba’ Oscar Peñas is Poet, Composer and Friend to Fisherman


Guitarist-composer Oscar Peñas (left) pianist Marta Sánchez and drummer Richie Barshay perform Feb. 8 at Aaron Davis Hall at the City College Center for the Arts in Harlem.

(Photo: Rudy Collins)

Oscar Peñas is a poet. Having tasked himself with writing a suite dedicated to the centuries-old practice of net-fishing off the Andalusian coast of Spain, the Catalan-born guitarist has crafted a work that, even at its most programmatic, feels like an ancient ode to the sea.

Almadraba, 12 distinct compositions linked by their theme, draws on modern jazz improvisation and classical composition techniques—deeply informed by Latin folk elements—to evoke, in a strong but subtle way, the pride and pathos associated with what might be a dying tradition.

Presented on Feb. 8 at Aaron Davis Hall at the City College Center for the Arts in Harlem, the suite—as performed by the Oscar Peñas Jazz Quartet, both alone and in tandem with the strings of the Mivos Quartet—eschewed pyrotechnic gestures. Rather, it focused on Peñas’ gift for lyrical understatement, and it did so using two discrete formats.

The first part of the suite involved only the jazz group. For about 20 minutes, Peñas, pianist Marta Sánchez, bassist Pablo Aslan and drummer Richie Barshay rode a melodic wave, buoyed by the bossa-like rhythms of “Traveling Through Water,” the elegiac musings of “Ballad Of The Fishermen,” the contrapuntal conjurings of “South” and the insistent yearnings of “Oh, Maguro,” a paean to the bluefin tuna.

The four tunes offered plenty of opportunity for improvisatory exchanges. Reflecting Peñas’ easygoing manner, those exchanges were open and loose. None of the quartet’s members hurried to fill the spaces, even when the spaces begged to be filled—a risky strategy, but one that ultimately paid off. As the tunes unfolded, a powerful sense of purposeful restraint revealed itself and what might have seemed like fragments of dead air became pauses pregnant with possibility, heightening the anticipation as the suite moved into its second portion.

The remaining tunes, for which the Mivos Quartet combined with the jazz group, concentrated less on improvisation than on composition. By introducing the additional strings—Olivia de Prato and Maya Bennardo on violin, Victor Lowrie Tafoya on viola and Tyler J. Borden on cello—Peñas opened the door for more variation in tone, texture and even time. The result was a sonic mix that, despite the added layers of complexity, never sacrificed clarity for density or volume. Arguably, the demands of the larger ensemble centered the work.

That was the case when the suite served up ruminations on the actual fishing process. “Calamento,” inspired by the feat of setting up the nets to catch the massive tuna, featured an energetic 5/4 mid-section set off by lush, languid sections in 4/4. “La Levantá,” evoking the laborious extraction of tuna from the nets, built a musical infrastructure around a single guitar note struck repeatedly, the tension increasing with each reiteration. That tension found a measure of release in the form of an ethereal piano cadenza opening the following tune, “La Bajá,” a moment of exhalation suggested by the post-catch release of the smaller tuna (the means by which the fishermen attempt to sustain the species).

The stages of the fishing process represented in the music were mirrored by a set of dramatic photos—some in grainy black-and-white, others in washed-out color—projected on a huge screen behind the musicians. The multimedia effect transformed the presentation into something of a multisensory experience. While the emotions aroused were vivid, the overall feeling never was one of sensory overload. Peñas’ palette, like that of the faded pictures, remained muted throughout.

Even when the bandleader brought out his nylon-string guitar and invoked, if obliquely, the flamenco sounds of his native land—as he did to great effect in the closing piece, “Buleria De La Almadraba,” the most animated offering of the night—he demonstrated an abundance of reserve. For all its artistry, Peñas’ work retained considerable humility and remained no less impactful because of it.

So far, Almadraba has been booked in two venues: the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it had its premiere in October, and Aaron Davis Hall, where it also was performed Feb. 7. A recording of the suite, for which Peñas recruited Ron Carter on bass, already is in the can. How that music will be disseminated remains an open question: digital, CD and vinyl formats all are being considered. That it should be disseminated, though, is beyond question.

In concert, Almadraba displayed an expansive vision. It reflected Peñas’ ability to bring together the strands of a broad cultural education—one encompassing classical studies as a teenager in Barcelona and jazz degrees at both Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory—in a seamless synthesis of musical idioms and artistic disciplines. In doing so, Peñas, who now lives in Brooklyn, burnished his bona fides as a multidimensional master of fusion—and a friend of fishermen everywhere. DB

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