The Life and Death of Austin Peralta
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."