The Life and Death of Austin Peralta
Courtesy of HVW8 Art + Design Gallery
By Mark McDermott
On the last night of his life, pianist Austin Peralta sat in on a show at Little Tokyo jazz joint the Blue Whale and played, as he always did, as if his life depended upon it.
The 22-year-old son of skateboard legend Stacy Peralta had been gigging since he was 12 -- including a star turn at the Tokyo Jazz Festival at 15, which signified the arrival of a musical force. But Peralta's power had of late reached an apex. As part of Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, the composer was at the forefront of a movement bringing together jazz, hip-hop and electronic music. Peralta, as much as any young musician alive, held in his hands the promise of making jazz relevant to a new generation.
"Who's to say that punk rock is more hard-core than jazz?" he said in an interview last year with L.A. Record. "It's just not true."
The last song Peralta played that night, Nov. 20, 2012, was Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." He tore into the tribute to jazz great Lester Young, for which Joni Mitchell later wrote lyrics. ("You know someone great has gone/The sweetest swinging music man...") Natasha Agrama, who was singing, later said Peralta's playing on that piece left her fundamentally altered.
"I was a different person when I started out on this song than when I finished it," she wrote on a Facebook post accompanying a video of the performance. "And you can tell ... nervousness transformed into pure love and power. And it was he that did it. His encouragement, his example, his enthusiasm, his playing. His passion."
As the show came to an end, Peralta sat behind his keyboard, smiling beatifically. "You killed it," he said, turning to Agrama.
Sometime in the early morning hours of Nov. 21, Peralta was found dead in his Santa Monica home. The cause of his death has not been made public. The Los Angeles County coroner's office expects to release autopsy results later this month.
See also our March 27, 2013 story: Austin Peralta Died From Pneumonia Combined With Drugs and Alcohol, Says Coroner
Reports of Peralta's death spread quickly in the music community. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea paid tribute on Twitter: "Austin Peralta was a transcendent musician, the kind of kid that made the future of music look bright. Thankful he existed. He broke through."
Stephen Bruner, the bassist known as Thundercat who was one of Peralta's closest friends and collaborators, recalls their parting ways outside the Blue Whale that night. They planned to meet up early the next morning. "I love you," Thundercat told him. Peralta howled happily from his car window as they pulled apart.
Like others interviewed for this story, Thundercat says he doesn't know what caused his friend's death. Nor, he says, fighting tears, does it matter: "He is definitely in my spirit."
Part of the tragedy of Peralta's passing is that he didn't leave much of a recorded legacy. He made three albums, but only the last -- Endless Planets, released in 2011 by Brainfeeder -- was he particularly happy with. (The first two, for Sony Japan, have not been released in the United States.)
"You are talking about a kid who was only 22," says Brainfeeder's chief, venerated producer Flying Lotus. "I remember being 22. I mean, I don't feel like I had that much to say. He has a lifetime of character in his music at 22. So who knows what he would have sounded like after he had his heart broken, or lost a loved one himself -- going through a darker place within yourself and coming out of it with a different sound.
"He never had the opportunity to do that, but he also never had the opportunity to turn into an old man and nobody gives a fuck what you are doing. He got to go out being like all these people he looked up to. What the fuck -- you got to leave like a fucking legend, Austin. I'm too old already to leave like a legend. He got to go out like Bird. He got to really go for it."
Peralta started playing piano at age 5. In interviews, he recalled hearing Mozart and immediately demanding his parents get him a piano and a teacher. He subsequently became so obsessed with Chopin that he began dressing like the pianist, or at least how he figured Chopin would dress.
"As a preteen, I was pretty strange," he told URB magazine. "I donned tuxedos and pretty much anything fancy I could get my hands on."
At 10, Peralta heard a riff on jazz pianist Bill Evans' Turn Out the Stars that changed his life. As was his way, he threw himself into all jazz, all the time. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, a bandleader in the vibrant, emerging L.A. jazz scene, recalls first encountering Peralta around this time. Washington was 20 and, like Peralta, studying under one of the great elder statesmen of local jazz, Gerald Wilson. Peralta was a floppy-haired, reed-thin slip of a boy, but when his long, slender fingers touched the piano, he was all business. "He had a different intensity," Washington says.
Two years later, Washington sat in on a gig that also included Peralta. "I almost didn't take it seriously," he says. "He was 12 and I was like 22 or 23. I came down there and heard him play. 'Wow, man, you sound good!' I didn't expect that. Wow. Amazing. The vocabulary, the facility. ... He was writing his own tunes and had a couple he wanted to play -- really, really hard tunes."
Peralta grew up skateboarding, but when his father saw his talent for piano, he urged his son to focus on it.
"Actually, I messed up my wrist one time trying to skate a pool and he was, like, 'You shouldn't do this. Play the piano,' " Peralta told URB. (His dad, Stacy Peralta, the skateboarding icon and filmmaker who made Dogtown and Z-Boys, declined comment for this story.)
Kezban Özcan, a friend who was introduced to Peralta when he was 15, recalls a conversation she had with his mother, filmmaker Joni Caldwell. "[I said,] 'What do you do with a child like this, so gentle and so sweet?" Özcan says. "And she said, 'You know, it's not just about playing. When he walks across the room my heart sinks, and I'm filled with beautiful feelings.' "
Word began spreading among L.A. jazz heads about this little skater kid who could play like McCoy Tyner, considered one of the most powerful and challenging pianists of the 20th century. In 2006, Peralta was invited to perform at the prestigious Tokyo Jazz Festival alongside legends Hank Jones and Chick Corea.
In videos from the festival, Peralta looks undaunted. He opened with one of Tyner's most difficult pieces, "Passion Dance," and played it with verve, ease and evident joy. He was a sensation. Backstage footage shows him receiving a slap on the back from legendary bassist Marcus Miller, who at one point turns to the camera and says, "This dude is so old. See, he looks like he's young, but he's really 45 years old. He bought this cream, right, that you put on your face. ... "
Around age 17, Peralta began a deep study of John Coltrane, perhaps the most revered figure in jazz history. As Washington notes, musicians can spend months understanding a single Coltrane solo. It was around this time that Peralta met Flying Lotus after one of his shows.
"He came up to me, 'Yo, man. Coltrane, man. Fucking Coltrane, man,' " says Flying Lotus, who is the grand-nephew of pianist Alice Coltrane, who was married to John Coltrane. "I said, 'Yeah, that guy was sick.' I just kept walking. I didn't know who Austin was. No, 'Hi, I'm Austin, nice to meet you.' No nothing."
Peralta graduated in 2009 from the famously progressive Crossroads School in Santa Monica (home to many celebrity offspring) and moved to New York to attend the New School. Homesick for the beaches and mellower confines of Southern California, he returned after only a year.
Peralta began to find his own sound. He collaborated with his close friend David Wexler, aka Strangeloop, a new-media artist who provides stage visuals for Flying Lotus. Peralta encouraged Strangeloop to begin composing music, and together they challenged barriers between jazz and L.A.'s emerging beat scene, which is influenced by hip-hop. "We had ideas about ignoring convention and genre, having ambient landscapes of acoustic and electronic sounds, then classical pieces, all of it in the same set ... just wandering through musical history," Strangeloop says.
"[Strangeloop] was, like, 'You gotta meet this guy, you gotta meet this guy,' like, all right, fuck, jeez," Flying Lotus says. "They both came by my house and Austin played my piano and I was like, 'Oh shit." Flying Lotus signed Peralta on the spot. The latter had already recorded an album on his own, and in 2011, Brainfeeder released Endless Planets.
"Jazz has been such a close-minded genre over the past 20 or 30 years," Flying Lotus says. "He saw Brainfeeder as 'Fuck all that shit. ... ' It inspired him, and he inspired us, because he was doing things we couldn't."
Peralta toured relentlessly, often with Thundercat, who was five years older and part of a tightly knit group of young jazz musicians who called themselves "the unit" and often met at a little jam room behind Kamasi Washington's father's house in Inglewood. Peralta was the only white kid there.
Thundercat recalls that when Peralta was first brought into the group, the conversation drifted to favorite jazz players. Peralta chimed right in, noting that one particular well-regarded player "weirded" him out. Everyone fell silent -- who was this little kid? -- and Thundercat burst into laughter. "That's what you got to do, come in like a bowling ball," he says.
"We got each other. His language, I totally understood what he was saying -- more than just playing, we shared a lot of spiritual tactics," Thundercat says. "And that is how me and him first met -- he was a little kid, and he was crazy as cat shit, and me being a cat, it was perfect. Cats love smelling each other's shit."
Thundercat and Peralta traveled the world together, touring Europe, Asia and South America. "We'd always be in some crazy situation," Thundercat says. "He could look over -- 'OK, if Thunder is here, I'm fine.' And as long as I knew where Austin was, if I can see Austin in my peripheral, I'm good."
In November Peralta traveled to Poland with drummer Zach Harmon and bassist Gabe Noel. They stopped in Warsaw, Chopin's home city, and made a middle-of-the-night expedition to a statue of the composer, located in a park that was locked up. They broke in and Peralta climbed on top of Chopin.
Harmon credits Peralta with helping to free him from crippling self-esteem issues. In trying to explain how he did this, Harmon references Peralta's "Introduction: The Lotus Flower": "Sometimes if you grasp at something too quickly, it may be so fragile that it will be destroyed. But I ... imagine a lotus flower at the bottom of an empty pool. What he did, instead of reaching in to pick the flower up, he poured all the heart and soul and compassion he had into the pool, and it raised that flower up. It was just such gentle urgency."
"With his music, he just tried to convey, 'Keep going, keep going, be better,' " Thundercat says. "He wouldn't say that; it was implied. Be as great as you can be."
Flying Lotus says he takes comfort in Peralta's fearlessness. His conversations veered toward the concepts of infinity and the cosmos, and he sometimes called his band "the Deathgasms."
"I know without a doubt he was very unafraid," Flying Lotus says. "He was really connected to his higher self for such a young man -- of all my friends, he was the least afraid of death, and the most familiar with it.
"It's the ultimate trip. And it's the one experience we can all count on."
Corrections: In the original version of this story, the publication L.A. Record and bassist Marcus Miller were each misidentified.
A tribute to Peralta featuring the Kamasi Washington Ensemble and others will be held Jan. 31 at the Del Monte Speakeasy.
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