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The Life and Death of Austin Peralta

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Tue, Jan 15, 2013 at 4:00 AM

  • 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."

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