The Jazz Great Who Never Was

At 15, pianist Austin Peralta was recording with Ron Carter; at 22 he was dead—leaving behind almost no trace of his greatness

Frankly, I don’t recall why I reached out to pianist Austin Peralta back in 2008 or 2009. I vaguely remember that someone told me about him in an email—but I get recommendations like that every day. So why did I pay attention to this one?

It must have been someone whose judgment I trusted. Not a paid publicist or record label flack—probably a seasoned LA musician whose opinions I took seriously. The advice, as I recall, was short and to-the-point, along the lines of: Ted, pay attention to this LA teenager named Austin Peralta. He’s going to shake things up.

“Peralta didn’t get back to me for many days. And when he did, his reply surprised me. In fact, I’d never encountered this kind of response in all my years of reviewing.”

I can say with certainty that I had no interest in Peralta as a jazz child prodigy. There are few music critics less interested in child prodigies than me. I hear about them all the time—they’re everywhere nowadays—and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are just two kinds of child prodigies in jazz, and it’s wise to avoid both of them.

The first type is the over-hyped talent who is nowhere near as good as the press releases claim. This is not an infrequent situation—and usually because someone stands to gain from exaggerating the child’s ability. If I had a taste for jazz gossip (which I don’t), I could share shameful details of parents who invest a hundred thousand dollars or more in creating a reputation for their youngster as a prodigy, built largely on smoke and mirrors and cash payments. The kid must have a modest level of talent, but we’re definitely not talking about the next Mozart—more like a school band standout. If you have enough money to spend, you can even get radio airplay and fawning reviews. It sure looks good on the college application.

On the other hand, there are genuine child prodigies, with enormous talent. But even here, I find the whole situation distasteful. No matter how awesome their ability, children should not be releasing jazz albums. They need time to mature and find their individual sound and approach. If they’re rushed at this juncture, they may never achieve any genuine depth as artists.

Consider the case of Joey Alexander, the most hyped child prodigy in jazz in recent memory. The first time I heard him play, I knew immediately that he had huge upside potential. Alexander is the real deal. But I also knew that he shouldn’t be making records at age 11—and the New York Times wasn’t doing him any favors by proclaiming his greatness in large font headlines.

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Even if the finger dexterity is impressive, the emotional depth and sense of individualism—absolutely essential elements in jazz—will be lacking at that age. There’s only so much soulfulness a preteen can put into a solo, and it barely fills a thimble. More to the point, too much praise too soon can stunt a child’s development. (If you have any doubts, just look at the teen sports world and count the tragic stories.) Alexander recently turned 18, and I’ve started paying closer attention—with the highest of hopes. But he may struggle holding on to his audience, because he built his public image as a precocious whiz kid, fast and glib at the keyboard—a rare adolescent, no doubt, but embraced by various interests as a marketable commodity. The time will come when Joey Alexander genuinely deserves a Grammy nomination, but when he was 13, there were a thousand jazz players more worthy than him. Yes, the marketing hype won out, but that’s a risky way to embark on your life’s work—you can only be the whiz kid for so long.

So I certainly didn’t reach out to Austin Peralta because he was promoted as a prodigy. That probably made me more skeptical than anything. But in all fairness, there wasn’t much promotion. I’d never received a press release, and few were aware of Peralta’s precocious music skills back in those days—at least in the United States. There was no fawning article in the New York Times or any other leading newspaper, as far as I could tell. I had never heard his name until someone told me about him.

But a Google search informed me that Peralta had achieved a degree of jazz fame in Japan when he was 15 years old. He even made two records in Japan—both of them released in 2007. The first one, called Maiden Voyage, featured Peralta playing with bassist Ron Carter. That caught my attention. Carter is one of the most respected bassists in the history of jazz—what’s he doing in the studio with a 15-year-old pianist? And that same year, Peralta recorded another album for the Japanese market, but this time with another world class bassist, Buster Williams.

At this juncture, I decided I should listen to this music, just to stay informed. I had low expectations—as mentioned above, the prodigy angle always turns me off. I’m old enough to remember the rise and fall of Craig Hundley—these youngsters come and go, usually sooner rather than later. But as a jazz critic, I still need to listen. I spend a lot of time doing just that, staying abreast of trends, whether I like them or not. Stan Getz once told me: “I listen to music the way a stock broker follows Wall Street”—a comment which puzzled me at the time, but I now understand exactly what he meant. You ought to know whose stock is rising, and whose is falling, even if you’re not making an investment.

But I ran into a problem. I couldn’t find any of Austin Peralta’s recordings online. None of the usual platforms back then (such as YouTube), had even a single track. That was puzzling. How did Peralta hope to build on his fame as a prodigy if he didn’t upload any tracks online?

After some sleuthing, I found an email address for teenager musician Austin Peralta. So I sent him an email, requesting review copies of his Japanese albums—or, if it were simpler, perhaps he could email me some MP3 files.

I do this fairly often, but I always need to be careful—especially with someone so young. There’s an etiquette between reviewers and musicians, and it requires delicacy on both sides. When addressing a teen, this is even more of an issue. So I probably wrote something simple and straightforward, along the lines of:

Hello, I’m Ted Gioia, I write on jazz—you might be familiar with my books.  I’d like to listen to some of the music you recorded in Japan. I’d appreciate it if you would send me something at your convenience, etc. etc.

Musicians usually respond quickly to these inquiries. But not in this case. Peralta didn’t get back to me for many days. And when he did, his reply surprised me. In fact, I’d never encountered this kind of response in all my years of reviewing.

Peralta told me that he didn’t want me to hear his music.

And why not?

He said that it wasn’t good enough.

He especially didn’t want me to hear the albums he made in Japan. He explained that this music was embarrassingly bad. He didn’t want them imported to the United States. It would be better, he thought, if no one heard them.

I was taken aback by this—I’ve dealt with all kinds of musicians over the years, but I’d never met any who don’t want reviewers to listen to their records.

I mulled over Peralta’s email for some time, before deciding to push back. I wrote again, suggesting that perhaps Peralta had more recent tracks he would share with me—something representative, really anything. I’d just like to get a sense of what he was doing.

In the next email, Peralta admitted that there wasn’t a single track he had ever recorded he was willing to share with me. They just weren’t good enough. As a kind of goodwill gesture, he admitted there was a possibility that at some indefinite point in the future, he might make music worthy of my attention—and promised he would get back in touch when that happened.

At this point, I was even more curious about these Japanese recordings. What could he have done performing with Ron Carter that was so embarrassing. Forget the chord changes on “Little Waltz”? Turn the beat around on “Milestones”? Play “Footprints” in the wrong key? I began looking around for other ways of getting my hands on this music, and discovered that it was possible, but only if I paid top dollar and had it shipped from Tokyo.

I decided to do that. The surviving invoice tells me that I made the purchase in June 2009.

When it arrived, I put Maiden Voyage on the turntable with trepidation. What did I hear? Fortunately for you, this music is now on YouTube—uploaded after Peralta’s death—and you can judge for yourself. Here’s the music of 15-year-old Austin Peralta, that he found too embarrassingly bad to share.

Not only was it good—it was remarkably good.

There was much to admire here. That clean touch, reminiscent of Chick Corea’s brightly articulated tone—where every note rings like bell—jumps out at you immediately. The solos are persuasive, well beyond what I’d expect from a teen. But I especially liked the in-the-moment feeling of the music, a devil-may-care attitude that makes you feel the intensity of the song viscerally.

I was now intrigued. Who was this young man? What made him tick? What was he up to? Above all, why was he so bloody modest about his music?

I started doing more in-depth research. I found that the pianist was son of a famous skateboarder named Stacy Peralta—a man who was almost the same age as me (we were born six days apart and just a few miles away from each other). I don’t follow the world of skateboarding, but I now learned that Stacy Peralta had been the highest-ranked competitor in the sport at age 19. In his world, he is a legend. And he had one son, named Austin, born on October 25, 1990.

“By age thirty, Austin Peralta would have been approaching legendary status. Of that, I’m absolutely convinced.”

I put a lot of credence in DNA, but I had never previously considered skateboarding as akin to jazz. Yet maybe that connection explained the free-spirited energy I heard on these tracks. In my youth, I hung out with a bunch of skateboarders—they called it sidewalk surfing back then—and the gear was a lot less forgiving in those days. Serious injuries were common, and one friend even needed major reconstructive surgery after a skateboarding accident, but those were the dues you paid in such circles. Only daredevils and extreme risk-takers rose to the top of the field. That’s the same attitude Austin Peralta brought to the piano on these Japanese recordings—a puzzling contrast to his unassuming demeanor in our email exchanges.

As I dug more deeply into the available biographical details, I learned that Austin had studied with two top LA jazz artists, pianist Alan Pasqua and saxophonist Buddy Collette. Those connections also bespoke a good pedigree, and mature musical judgment. But why was Austin Peralta studying with a saxophonist? As I came to learn, this youngster also played saxophone, as well as upright bass and drums, in addition to the piano work that had caught my attention.

I also found out that Peralta had won an award from the Los Angeles Jazz Society, as the best new talent in jazz, with the trophy handed out by Quincy Jones himself. Oh, did I mention that Austin was twelve years old at the time? At an age when other youngsters are still playing with dolls and toy trains, Peralta was gigging at the leading jazz clubs in LA, and working with the best musicians in town.

Even before he was a teenager, Peralta came to the attention of Flying Lotus, mastermind behind the LA jazz renaissance of recent years, and was an active part of the Brainfeeder label. Since the launch of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic (2015), arguably the most significant jazz album of the last decade, this label is well known in the music world—at the cutting edge of the emerging dialogue between jazz and popular genres. But Peralta was part of the Brainfeeder brain trust from the start.

In fact, I believe that Austin Peralta would have been the pianist on The Epic, had he lived. I’d even wager that, in time, he would have gained acclaim as the leading West Coast jazz pianist of his generation—pushing the boundaries of the idiom in marvelous and magical ways. His low-key demeanor and total lack of vanity would, of course, have slowed down his ascent, but by age thirty, Austin Peralta would have been approaching legendary status. Of that, I’m absolutely convinced.

We got a small taste of this on Peralta’s album Endless Planets, released shortly before his death. I picked it as one of the best albums of the year back in 2011—although I was frustrated (as always with Peralta) with the self-effacing modesty displayed on this recording. Even though this was his leader date, Peralta featured himself sparingly as a soloist on these tracks. The music is fresh and mind-expanding, but it definitely isn’t designed to showcase Austin Peralta, piano legend.

Yet that was the last we heard from Austin Peralta. As a result, very few people know about his extraordinary abilities, even among jazz devotees. He’s one of the most impressive musicians I’ve encountered in my long career as a music critic, but he came and went with almost no lasting impact on the art form.

Most of his reputation nowadays is based on the memories left behind. I’m reminded of another LA almost-legend, a basketball player named Raymond Lewis, who many believe is the greatest hoopster never to play in the NBA. I saw what Lewis could do, and it was staggering—but only a few seconds of film clips survive. Those who were there know, but how do you build a lasting legacy when so little was documented?

So I curse Austin Peralta’s modesty. I’m angry at myself, too, for not being more persistent with him, convincing him somehow to send me his privately made recordings, something more to support his now ebbing legend. I wish he had recorded more, promoted his music more aggressively, and—above all—just taken better care of his precarious physical health. But that wasn’t in his nature.

To his credit, I realize that this same lack of ego would have propelled Peralta to the highest levels of the music, if he had lived longer. His modesty kept him working at his craft, when others with his skills would have grown complacent. And his ability to operate without vanity made him an ideal collaborator for other great musicians, who would have found in him the perfect companion on their own journeys of expansion and discovery—supportive, adaptive, flexible, and focused on the collective goals at hand.

When I heard the news, I was stunned. Austin Peralta had died on November 21, 2012, just a few days after celebrating his 22nd birthday. Flying Lotus shared the bad tidings on Twitter: “It kills me to type that we lost a member of our family, Austin Peralta. I don’t really have the right words right now.”

A few days later, an obituary in the LA Times made clear that those who had heard Peralta in performance knew that he “sounded like every bit of the next big thing.” That’s a good way of putting it. A few high-profile insiders plugged into the SoCal music scene, such as Flea and Robert Glasper, paid tribute. But outside of LA, media outlets mostly ignored the news. To be honest, few music fans had ever heard Peralta perform, and he had done as little as possible to promote his recordings. More than anyone in jazz, he had violated the Biblical imperative not to hide your lamp under a bushel.

Peralta had just finished a gig that he really should have cancelled—the coroner’s report tells us he was suffering from pneumonia at the time. But there was also alcohol and drugs in his system, perhaps used to excess on this instance to get him through a performance when he wasn’t feeling up to its demands. Or maybe substance abuse was another aspect of the daredevil attitude I heard on those early tracks. I don’t know enough, and refuse to pass judgment. Either way, the situation is tragic.

Austin Peralta’s website is still active. Here’s the entire bio—apparently unchanged since his death.

And that’s Peralta’s career in a nutshell—three albums, two of which he didn’t want anyone to hear. The third one just gave listeners a small taste of his talent, almost as if he wanted to counter the show-off-ish brilliance of the earlier efforts. The promised “full length” follow-up project never materialized.

But the forward-looking improvised music with “cosmic sensibilities” that Peralta envisioned a decade ago is now a red hot trend, not just in jazz but in soul, hip-hop, R&B, and the rising of wave of Afro-futurist music of recent years.

Peralta never got to enjoy the benefits of that world-changing movement, but he did lay the groundwork for it. If only for that, he deserves to be remembered. But I’ll also savor the few tracks he left us—which he probably never wanted me to hear—and dream of ones he might have made.