JazzDeLaPena Interview w/Thomas Peña


By Tomas Peña
June 16, 2015

Tomas Peña: Congrats! Titanes del Trombón is the “feel good” album of the summer, or as one reviewer wrote, “If you need a reminder of why you originally fell in love with this music, here it is.”

Doug Beavers: Thank you.

It has the look, feel and sound of a big production. 

It’s huge! But it’s all about having a vision. I started conceiving it after my last record, Two Shades of Nude, which did OK but it didn’t relate to the people I was meeting and the places I was going. Titanes del Trombón runs the full gamut, featuring extended brass for rhythmically intense salsa selections and delicate string and harp scoring for two of my favorite selections, Engima, and Folhas Secas.

Where did you study?

I studied in California and at The Manhattan School of Music in New York, where I majored in Composition. Which, in hindsight, was a great call. I studied with Mike Abene, got my chops together and learned how to create a band sound.

That definitely comes through on the recording. Where were you born and where is your family from? 

I’m what they would call “mixed.” My mother is from Spain, and my dad is Black, he was born in Kansas and raised in Los Angeles, where I grew up.

You are bi-coastal between New York and California. 

Yes, I work at the California Jazz Conservatory, where I’m creating a Latin concentration program however I am also involved with Eddie Palmieri, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and projects of my own.

How did you become involved with Eddie Palmieri?

Conrad Herwig introduced me to Eddie, and there goes that story.

You won a Grammy with Eddie for the album, Listen Here (2005).

That’s a great record for a lot of reasons. I got to sit in the control room and listen to Michael Brecker tell Barry Rogers stories, after which they rushed him off to the hospital. We had no idea that he was ill. The whole thing with Christian Mc Bride, Regina Carter, sitting next to John Scofield and in the other room was Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Giovanni Hidalgo. At the time, I was in my twenties but it wasn’t an “Oh, My God!” thing, it was very cool.

Titanes del Trombón is a departure from Two Shades of Nude (2010, Origin)

Two Shades of Nude was a jazz thing with adventurous writing. With Titanes, I wanted to create a listenable record that touches the audience. When you’re touring Colombia, Mexico, Peru your fans want to hear music that touches them. I knew I didn’t want to do a salsa record, but I wanted the salsa tunes I chose to be kick ass and be on the money.

Mission accomplished! Titanes is a fan-funded Artists Share Project.

Yes, it’s a great label. I’m proud to be in the company of artists like Maria Schneider, Brian Lynch, the Clayton Brothers, Ingrid Jensen and Danilo Perez among others.

Conceptually, Titanes pays tribute to the great trombonists of both jazz and Afro-Cuban music, through the lens of varied Latin idioms including mambo, guaguanco, bata, boss nova, samba and Latin jazz. It also tells the story of a modern trombonist and brings attention to the fact that many trombonists are formidable composers and arrangers in their own right. 

You could say it’s the center point because we are shedding light on the fact. J. J. Johnson, among others wrote for films like, Across 110th Street, Cleopatra Jones, and Top of the Heap.

The album hits the ground running with Trombón Moderno.

The tune pays tribute to Generoso Tojo Jimenez aka El Trombón Majadero, a pioneer of the Latin trombone. He set the standard and Barry Rogers and everybody else came after that. I start with the cadenza he did on Trombón Criollo and hit the listener in the face with a big sound. There’s a DJ Edit at the end, where we do some different things to keep it at the six-minute mark.

Esa Mujer – I was looking for a story that went to the heart of a love lost, a tune about a chick that causes pain and Carlos Cascante, who I met through bassist Joe Santiago, gave me a great tune. As soon as I heard it I imagined a big sound and flowing lines. You can hear the influence of musician, arranger Ray Santos in there.

Interludio I, II and III – Viaje – The Suite pays tribute to Barry Rogers because he is everything to us, not to just as a trombone player but for any Latin soloist.

Voy Manejando is the first tune I wrote for the record, even before I knew what it was going to be about. The core concept was to create something extremely listenable and accessible. Trombonist Conrad Herwig and pianist Oscar Hernandez are featured.

Tu No Sabes is a Son Montuno and an homage to Eddie Palmieri, who asked me to arrange and transcribe La Perfecta’s repertoire in 2005. The tune features Oscar Hernández and percussionist Eddie Montalvo.

Engima – J.J. Johnson wrote such a beautiful melody that I wanted put words to it. Believe it or not, my mother, Anna Rovira came up with the lyrics. I took her idea and gave it to Hector Aponte, who fleshed it out and sang the lead. It has a nice intro and bolero feel, then goes into a cha-cha, followed by an interlude. It’s a very orchestrated, arranged kind of thing, influenced by my heroes, Nelson Riddle and Rene Hernandez.

Take it to Ozone is a Freddie Hubbard tune. The idea was to present the trombone in a modern light. Thanks to the great trombone players past and present we could hang on those tempos and play those lines. The featured guest is drummer Dafnis Prieto.

Boranda pays tribute to Papo Lucca y La Sonora Ponceña. Initially, I mistook Carlos Cascante’s voice for Cano Estremera. Your arrangement captures the essence and swing of the original tune.

To even record Boranda takes some balls! What’s cool about it is, you get to hear the New York swing. Plus you have Oscar Hernandez, George, Delgado and Luisito Quintero and for a twist I transcribed Papo Lucca’s arrangement and used French Horns to accentuate what he did.

Folhas Secas has a Brazilian vibe. 

It’s a beautiful tune, popularized by Elis Regina in the 60s. One of my mentors, Joe Santiago gave me a collection of her tunes. It’s one of my favorites.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the all-star cast. 

During the long journey of production I found myself in the lucky and humble position of being able to call on many important artists from New York that I’ve collaborated with during my years performing alongside Palmieri, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Mingus Big Band and the like. Before I knew it, I had an album with an all-star cast including Oscar Hernández, Dafnis Prieto, Luisito Quintero, Edsel Gomez, Eddie Montalvo, and many other top-tier players. A total of forty-seven musicians appear on the recording.  

You are a strong advocate for music education.

I’ve served as an adjunct professor, lecturer and advisor at colleges and universities in the U.S. around the world. I established the Harlem School of Urban Music and Recording Arts (harlemschool.org), which offers students in the South Bronx the opportunity to study jazz, salsa, hip-hop and rock through music theory and modern audio production training. I’ve also conducted master classes at many institutions.

When will Titanes de Trombón be released?

June 16th (2015).

And the CD Release Party will be held at SOB’s (Sounds of Brazil) in New York on June 19th (see link below). 

Yes, there will also be a live taping. Please join me.

Thank you for speaking with me. I’ll go out with the following quote from Latin Beat Magazine, “A new star is emerging with trombone in his heart and Salsa Dura in his soul.” See you at SOB’s!