Piano Phenom Austin Peralta Dead At 22 (Originally published November 22, 2012)


LAJazz.com is extremely saddened to report the passing of Santa Monica pianist Austin Peralta, age 22, on Wednesday, November 21, 2012. Peralta was regarded as a piano phenom at a very early age, and began appearing at the Jazz Bakery as early as age 11. In 2003 he received the Shelly Manne Memorial New Talent Award from the Los Angeles Jazz Society. Peralta recorded his first major label CD in New York at age 14 with legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. He appeared with Chick Corea and Hank Jones at age 15 at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, and at the Java Jazz Festival at age 16.

Austin Peralta was the son of Stacy Peralta, a member of the Z-Boys professional skateboarding team and Southern California film director, and filmmaker Joni Caldwell. Austin first began piano studies at age 5, and was considered a classical piano phenom by the age of 10. Around that time he was given a recording by the late jazz pianist Bill Evans, and according to Austin “something just clicked”. He than began taking in as much jazz music as possible and began playing with jazz musicians around Los Angeles, rapidly gaining a reputation as a prodigal young pianist.

Peralta began regularly working around Los Angeles jazz venues in his mid-teens, and appeared on numerous occasions as a leader or sideman at the Jazz Bakery, Catalina, Charlie O’s, The Baked Potato, Spazio, Blue Whale and nearly every other jazz venue in Greater Los Angeles.

His world travels began at age 15 with an appearance at the Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2006, where he played with his own trio including Los Angeles-born drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., as well as appearing with festival headliners Chick Corea and Hank Jones and the young Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara. The concert was recorded for release on a Japanese DVD. In 2007 Peralta made his first appearance at the Java Jazz Festival, and he appeared at other jazz festivals and venues around the world in subsequent years.

Peralta recorded the album “Maiden Voyage” for the Japanese Sony 88 label in New York in September of 2005 at the age of 14, which featured Billy Kilson on drums and the premier jazz bassist Ron Carter. It was released in Japan in February of 2006. His second album for the same label “Mantra” featured bassist Buster Williams, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson. It was recorded in New York in October of 2006 and released in December that same year in Japan.

Peralta received numerous scholarship offers after graduating from Crossroads School for the Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica in 2009, eventually choosing The New School in New York City, but he returned to Southern California after one year. Even before leaving for New York, Peralta was spending more of his energies on original compositions and exploring mixing jazz with hip hop and electronica, which he continued through and beyond his 2011 album release on Brainfeeder entitled “Endless Planets”, where he worked with producer Flying Lotus.

Peralta’s most recent local appearances included an October 25th opening set for the Robert Glasper Experiment at UCLA Royce Hall. Peralta appeared as pianist with the Natasha Agrama Group at Little Tokyo’s Blue Whale on November 20, 2012, the night before his passing.

As of this publication the exact circumstances of Austin Peralta’s death are unclear – his Brainfeeder record label acknowledged his death with a tribute page, and Brainfeeder head Flying Lotus, among many others, has issued condolences on the passing of Austin Peralta. As more details become available and verifiable, this page will be updated accordingly.

A memorial service and celebration of life for Austin Peralta was held Saturday, December 1, 2012 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.   An overflow crowd estimated at 800 persons attended the memorial, which was followed by an extended jam session of musical friends.

LAJazz.com wishes to extend its most sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Austin Peralta.

Reflections From The Editor:  Outside of a select group of musical insiders, it’s not a commonly known fact that Southern California is home to some of the finest young jazz talent in the world. That talent compares as well or better to that from anywhere, and is acknowledged most often when young SoCal musicians and ensembles win awards at major jazz festivals, and in scholarships to America’s most prestigious music schools.

Words and phrases like “prodigy”, “gifted”, “stunning”, “destined for stardom”, and “they can choose any path their future desires” are tossed around in Southern California musical circles, far too often to describe the next flash-in-the-pan, over-hyped musical young talent whose fifteen minutes of fame is often more, in reality, like fifteen seconds. Through the PR chaff, however, are the supremely gifted young artists who in fact posses the genuine ability so few actually share.

I have the good fortune to see, hear, and get to know many of these young and talented individuals. It’s a considerable pleasure to see as much talent as I do, watch them listen and learn from their elders, and then begin finding their own musical voices and influences as they continue along the musical journey that, for the best of them, will last a lifetime.

Austin Peralta was one of those young and truly talented individuals. In 2007, shortly after relocating to SoCal full-time, I heard about a young Santa Monica pianist, a surfer boy that could play McCoy Tyner like nobody’s business, and that I needed to check him out. The level of hype was strong enough that I figured I was more likely in for another mild disappointment at best, as I’d known Tyner’s work for forty years at that point. I had seen Tyner in Boston at his peak in the late 1970’s as well as in later appearances in Washington and Philadelphia, and had stacks of solo and John Coltrane recordings attesting to my affinity for Tyner and his prodigious ability – a pianist I’d met in Ohio in the early 1980’s who’d previously worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk referred to Tyner as “the black belt of piano”.

And so I went to Charlie O’s in Van Nuys for Thanksgiving in 2007. Charlie O’s was open 365 days a year, and Thanksgiving and Christmas were usually reserved for young musicians who played in front of sparse audiences that didn’t have a chance to spend holiday evenings with family. I’d been listening to tracks from Peralta’s MySpace page which featured his two 2006 Japanese CD’s, but I wanted to see him play live to be able to better gauge his talent. I’d written in advance about a trio gig Peralta had played in a few weeks earlier at the Jazz Bakery, but hadn’t been able to get to the performance in person. The young saxophonist Zane Musa was the bandleader at Charlie O’s, and a veteran woodwind specialist of many decades in Hollywood studios had suggested I check out Zane, as well. Austin Peralta had just turned 17.

Seeing Austin for the first time, as was the case for most, was, in fact, stunning. Especially when the band played John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner pieces, Austin attacked the work as if he was channeling a younger version of McCoy. “Passion Dance”, a personal Tyner favorite of mine and the opening track on Peralta’s first CD “Maiden Voyage”, was especially enlightening, as Austin’s right hand was the near-equal of Tyner at his peak on a tune few pianists even attempt, much less successfully pull off. In fact, it bordered on the bizarre seeing a 17-year-old kid who looked even younger play that well, with that much enthusiasm, and with that much seeming ease.

That night began a series of contacts with Austin over the next five years. Despite his gigs at the Jazz Bakery, I was surprised by how few jazz fans, and even my extended musical contacts, seemed to know much about Austin Peralta. I then made it a point to write about Austin’s local gigs whenever possible, both because I enjoyed his playing, and especially because I hoped more L.A. jazz fans would check him out. I shortly thereafter began referring to Austin to musician friends as “The Freak”, after a football player I’d known who was blessed with natural abilities that appeared on their face to be beyond human. That was the level of talent I saw in Austin Peralta.

Austin and I continued to see each other on a semi-regular basis. He loved to jam with other musicians and I’d see him at more venues than nearly any other young player, usually on the bandstand, sometimes just listening to some of the best musicians he could find to see what he could learn along the way. He would sub for Josh Nelson at Kevin Kanner’s usual Monday jam at The Mint, blasting away to the point where even the terrible house piano couldn’t hide his explosive talent. We spoke at a break about his Japanese CD’s, and that his relationship with the producer had soured to the point where he rarely talked about, promoted, or even wanted to play the music featured on them. He was already moving on from where he’d first gained notoriety before many people had a chance to discover him.

That same night at The Mint I watched him struggle, for the only time, with a Thelonious Monk tune, and I reminded him that he needed to work on that area of his playing as he’d continue to have to play Monk going forward when tunes were called from the bandstand. His “moving on” meant he was less enthusiastic than I’d hoped in my offer to arrange for him to sit in with Los-Angeles based saxophonist Azar Lawrence, a former bandmate of Tyner’s and widely recognized as the finest interpreter of the music of John Coltrane anywhere…the meeting, unfortunately, never happened.

Later in 2008 he played with then 15-year-old Ventura trombone phenom John Egizi at Catalina. His piano on John Coltrane’s “Song Of Praise” was, again, like something few pianists of any age could pull off with a combination of virtuosity, feel, and depth. Again…stunning.

On another evening I remember standing outside of Charlie O’s with Austin and bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, listening mostly to Carlitos tell Austin that he could play and do almost anything in the jazz world he wanted as the two discussed a possible show at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy the following summer. I too, emphasized to Austin that his gift was such that he could largely choose his own path if he stayed focused on his music and career. I repeated those words when I had the opportunity to meet his father at the Jazz Bakery some months later, after Stacy had posed a question on his son’s possible future in music.

When I heard he had chosen The New School in New York, we spoke about his leaving L.A. for what he then thought were the much greener musical pastures of Greenwich Village. Austin could have gone to college anywhere, and I tried reminding him that Los Angeles was as fertile, if not more so, than any place he might hope to go. His prospective love for all things New York quickly dimmed, however, and a few messages and one school year later he arrived back in Los Angeles. When I asked him about his experience in New York, he told me he missed the beaches, climate, and friendliness of Southern California…he was glad to be back.

We saw each other on numerous other occasions at various venues around L.A. We discussed music, life, and some of the challenges of youth that were his and those around him. When I’d expanded the Wikipedia page for him in early 2008 and discovered his real age in the process, I reminded him, firmly, that he had a responsibility to stay away from alcohol when he was around local clubs lest their operating licenses be jeopardized for the fact he was only 17. I’d occasionally send him music to listen to, or watch, and discuss possible projects or influence from obscure European pianists to big bands that had been born and died long before he came into the world. His most frequent reply was “Cool, man!”. I was able to record his playing at The Mint and the Jazz Bakery not long before it closed in 2009.

In late 2010 Austin had subbed for Dennis Hamm on a show with Australian drummer Virgil Donati at The Baked Potato. Virgil’s original music is notoriously difficult, especially for keyboardists, yet Austin largely nailed it with almost no rehearsal, sight reading from charts that more experienced world-class players had struggled to play. When I asked him about it later, he commented to me that he thought some of the more difficult classical pieces he continued to play gave him an easier foundation to approach Donati’s multi-metered compositions. Donati was impressed enough to offer Peralta a spot on a tour of India the next year with guitar legend Allan Holdsworth.

I thought enough of Austin that I usually had him at the top of my mind when a club promoter would call to ask who might be able to play a local show, and was able to arrange a handful of gigs over the past several years around L.A. in continuing to give him opportunities to showcase his talent, the last time a couple of months ago, but his schedule had him in Sao Paulo when those local openings were available, we couldn’t make it happen.

Those were the last times we spoke. I made a point to mention him in my print and online efforts as a member of the supporting cast for Natasha Agrama’s gig at Blue Whale the night before he died. Natasha had also had a recording session with Austin two days earlier, and she was overwhelmed by his support and helpfulness in those sessions. I had originally planned to be at Blue Whale, but Thanksgiving family obligations had me leaving town that morning. I got a lovely thank you note from Natasha the following morning, and then later, the incredibly difficult news that Austin had passed via his contemporary, pianist Ruslan Sirota.

As I said at the outset…there are many gifted young musicians in Southern California, and many more that are hyped far beyond any genuine abilities. Of all the wonderful young talent I’ve had the opportunity to see, listen, and meet, there was none more genuinely gifted, and by some margin, than Austin Peralta. None.

To see him leave this body just past his 22nd birthday is a tragedy for which mere words don’t even begin to express the loss for what was, and what was to come.

May you Rest In Peace, my young friend. The world is a lesser place without you.

—Tom Meek

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