On this rainier-than-usual first week of December, the Los Angeles music community is still reeling from the death of 22-year-old keyboardist Austin Peralta, who passed away just before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the jazz world is all too familiar with tales of young talent cut short: Buddy Bolden, Bix Biederbecke, Charles “Yardbird” Parker, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Christian, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy. If you want to get even more general about the vulnerabilities of young musicians, throw in Jay Reatard, D. Boon, Richie Valens, Kurt Cobain, 2Pac, and the Notorious B.I.G.
Peralta, the son of Z-Boy skateboarding legend turned filmmaker Stacy Peralta, was thin and tall with bony, delicate features and a perpetual baby face framed by a tangle of blonde surfer’s locks. He was a “jazz pianist” in much the same way Bob Dylan once called himself a “guitarist”—as if such sobriquets were useless to encompass such a wide-ranging musical palette. Peralta was omnivorous: electronica, swing, psychedelica, Indian drone, groove, funk, hard bop, classical all intertwined under his long fingers. He could play acoustic standards like “Green Dolphin Street” or “Someday My Prince Will Come” on a Yamaha Mini-grand then switch to a simultaneous, two-handed fusion attack on a Fender Rhodes electric piano and Hammond B3 organ. With songs like “The Underwater Mountain Odyssey,” “Renaissance Bubbles,” and “The Lotus Flower,” his third solo album, Endless Planets, spoke of a trippy, Siddhartha-like spiritual journey that had just begun to take form. Listening to it, you couldn’t wait to see where Peralta would go next.
Classically trained from a young age, Peralta was embraced by L.A. éminences grises like saxophonist/bandleader Buddy Collette and pianist/composer Alan Pasqua. In a 2009 concert at the Jazz Bakery showcasing the legacy of the late South L.A. composer/pianist Horace Tapscott, Peralta filled in for Nathaniel “Nate” Morgan on Morgan’s complicated, swinging composition “Mrafu.” The wowed reactions to his performance showed that The Kid was up for the pressure as well as the praise. Some who had seen Morgan play the song remarked that this spindly, wild-haired youth had grabbed the torch and ran with it. Older musicians grumbled with muted envy that carried a slight racial sting. What it all meant was that Peralta was wildly talented, he was being watched, and it was all in front of him.
Along with such contemporary pianists as Robert Glasper, Matthew Shipp, and Vijay Iyer, Peralta introduced a bit of verve and fire to a genre that’s still called “jazz” but stopped resembling such a monolithic reduction decades ago. Like Shipp, Peralta was certainly not afraid of criticizing the genre’s self-inflicted pretensions. “Jazz can be so stuffy and the audiences can be so pompous that… it needs that kind of energy,” he told L.A. Record in 2011. “It needs to make people feel like they’re having a deathgasm. And it can be through jazz—why not? Who’s to say that punk rock is more hardcore than jazz? It’s not true.”
Peralta was also a part of the stable at jazz-tinged rapper/producer Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Records, a vital musical milieu that – along with South L.A.’s OFWGKTA collective – has put the LoCal scene back on the vanguard music map. Unfortunately, Peralta is also the scene’s first tragedy – and an enigmatic one at that; the cause of death has yet to be determined. “[Brainfeeder] was one avenue in which Peralta connected to a greater musical community, one beyond ‘jazz,’” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon on NPR’s A Blog Supreme. “Of course, it seems likely he would have gotten there anyway.” Amen to that.