John Pena

Session player, touring artist, composer/arranger talks to FBPO about his jam-packed career

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 26, 2010

John Peña began his musical journey in New York at the age of 6, playing guitar under the guidance of his father, John Peña, Sr. By the time he was 17, John Jr. was residing in Puerto Rico and had become a much sought-after bassist, which jump-started his professional career.

Peña is well versed in virtually all types of music, including rock, jazz, R&B, blues, latin, gospel and everything in between. He has performed and/or recorded with Celia Cruz, Carlos Santana, Julio Iglesias, Tania Maria, Natalie Cole, The Crusaders, Herb Alpert, Chaka Khan, Jerry Garcia, Chick Corea, Steve Vai, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Ricky Martin, Barry Manilow, Larry Carlton, Michael McDonald, Joe Sample, Dave Koz, Arturo Sandoval, Dionne Warwick, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Patti LaBelle, Patti Austin, Kenny G, Oleta Adams, Thelma Houston and countless others.

John’s TV and movie credits as a performer, composer,
programmer and/or arranger include: Rush Hour, Along Came Polly, Men in Black 2, Bringing Down the House, Access Hollywood, ET, Friends, Roundhouse, Oprah, Tyra Banks, Jerry Springer, Desperate Housewives, and What’s Eating You, to name a few. He has also received many nominations and awards for his work as a composer, arranger and performer, including the Latin Grammys and Cable Ace Awards.

FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.

JP: At the age of 6 my dad taught me basic music theory and guitar. A few years later, I picked up the bass on my own. Growing up in New York and Puerto Rico, I was exposed to a wide variety of music. For example, you could hear many styles of music on one radio station. It was really cool back then. I was never leaning towards any particular style of music. I just loved hearing good music, no matter the genre.

FBPO: Was there a significant event or a turning point in your life that made you realize you were going to be a professional musician, or did you already have your mind made up from the start?

JP: While playing music through high school and in church, word got out about my playing. Don’t ask how. Some guy from Boston found me out in a remote part of Puerto Rico and asked if I was interested in playing Earth, Wind & Fire music with his group as a top-40 band. I loved Earth, Wind & Fire! This guy never heard me play a note. He just took people’s word for it. He then took me to this big house an hour away from home and had me stay there with about 8 to 10 other guys. We rehearsed for a couple of months until we were ready. The band was smokin’! We got our first gig at a disco not too far from where we were rehearsing. Soon afterwards, we were asked to audition in San Juan at one of the hottest nightspots on the strip and we got the gig. I was convinced then that I was going to do this for life.

FBPO: You’ve performed with such an incredible variety of musicians, covering just about every genre. Talk a little about how you approach these different scenarios. For example, you probably had a different mindset with Steve Vai than you did with, say, Engerlbert Humperdinck – didn’t you?

JP: Of course! I simply approach the music versus the genre. The music itself is more important to me than the genre. Each scenario requires its own tone, its own instrument and its own approach. I’ve always strived to provide the best of whatever is needed for each particular song or arrangement, taking into account the overall performance and sound. It’s almost like producing yourself with a very critical and open mind to get the best of everything. Sometimes, in taking those chances, you don’t get everything you want, but you learn from each experience, which helps you the next time around. Having done it now for so long, I pretty much know what will work and what won’t.

FBPO: I’ve always thought of you as a great bass player — and you’ve sure got the resume to prove it — but I wasn’t aware of all the writing and arranging projects you’ve done. Tell me about some of them.

JP: Well, that kind of started in the mid- to late ’80s, while I was playing with cats like Brandon Fields, Dave Garfield, Dave Goldblatt, Dave Witham, Steve Tavaglione, Luis Conte, etc. We started collaborating on their projects. I really enjoyed the chemistry and that made me want to do more of that in the ’90s. I had been doing some arranging before that time, but with these guys, things came together easily and quickly. We had a blast putting ideas together and turning them into a final product. All that writing and arranging still goes on today. It’s enabled me to do my own CD, Call it Grace, which was released just a couple of years ago.

FBPO: What advice do you have for young, talented musicians who want to go to New York or L.A. and break into the music scene? Things are a lot different today than they were when you first started out.

JP: My advice is to stay honest with yourself and with the music. You need to be constantly learning, have an open mind and not get wrapped up in the hype or popularity of the music business. Get to know as much about every facet of music possible, from writing, arranging, programming, producing, etc. Unfortunately, the business part of it is not that much fun, but has to be dealt with in order to make a living. Having some business savvy never hurts.

FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?

JP: Lately I have been playing and traveling more. I also have a few projects with friends that I am involved with at my recording facility.

FBPO: You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. What else would you like to do that you haven’t already done?

JP: I am trying to break into the TV and film industry. Easier said than done, of course. I do have some of my music and arrangements out on TV and film as cues etc., but I am working on getting a TV series or big screen film.

FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?

JP: I love to play basketball! I enjoy every facet of the game. I also love being around nature. Going up to the mountaintop or out to the sea. Soaking in all of God’s creation. It is overwhelming! It gives me much peace.

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