Saturday, November 24, 2012

Piano Phenom Austin Peralta Dead At 22

Austin Peralta - Photo courtesy of Angie Seegers

Update: March 2013 - The coroner's report for Austin Peralta indicated viral pneumonia was the most likely cause of death, aggravated by a combination of alcohol and drugs - The author's story published at LA Weekly can be found here:

Austin Peralta Died From Pneumonia Combined With Drugs and Alcohol, Says Coroner


It saddens me considerably 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 CD on a major label 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. He released his first recording in Los Angeles in March, 2005 as part of The Hour Trio - the album was entitled "Inta' Out".

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.

Austin Peralta Trio @ Tokyo Jazz 2006

"Someday My Prince Will Come" - Austin Peralta @ Tokyo Jazz 2006 w/Chick Corea, Hank Jones and Hiromi Uehara

"Blue Monk" - Austin Peralta @ Tokyo Jazz 2006 w/Chick Corea, Hank Jones and Hiromi Uehara

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.

In 2008 Austin Peralta's quartet appeared on KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, CA with host Tom Schnabel, where the program was recorded for both radio and video broadcast.

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 artist/producer Flying Lotus. Peralta also made multiple appearances on BBC Radio in 2011.

Austin Peralta with Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner & Gene Coye - BBC Radio, 2011

Austin Peralta "Capornicus" from "Endless Planets" CD Release Concert, Los Angeles, February 2011 - Video by Joni Caldwell

Soundcloud file of entire release concert for "Endless Planets" in February, 2011

Austin Peralta Trio in Poland, March 11, 2012

Kosmos Radio Tribute To Austin Peralta, Poland - Soundcloud file - November, 2012

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.

Austin Peralta at Blue Whale, November 20, 2012 - Photo courtesy of Natasha Agrama

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.

On A Personal Note: 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 McCoy 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 mid 1970'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 local 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.

Austin Peralta with Tom Catanzaro - The Mint Monday Night Jam - November 10, 2008 - "Inner Urge"

Austin Peralta at The World Stage with Kamasi Washington, 2008

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 in 2008, and the Jazz Bakery not long before it closed in 2009.

Austin Peralta w/The Mike Gurrola Quartet - "A Reflection Of Fire" - March, 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.

The video below was uploaded to Vimeo by Austin from the show on November 12, 2010. It consists of a segment of the Donati original "The Thinking Stone" followed by the jazz standard "Nothing Personal", which includes a blistering Peralta solo beginning at around the 3:00 mark. The Baked Potato's owner Justin Randi commented to me later that he was "completely blown away by the kids playing Virgil's music that night - it was the best I ever heard it".

Austin Peralta with Allan Holdsworth, Anthony Crawford and Virgil Donati, India, November 2011 Audience video - "Letters Of Marque"

Austin Peralta performs Schubert D. 935 (Op. 142)_ Impromptu No. 1 In F Minor. Allegro Moderato for "Being In The World", 2010

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.

Austin Peralta Trio in Sao Paulo, Brazil - September, 2012 - "Gemma" - This video was played at the memorial for Austin Peralta at Crossroads School, Santa Monica, CA on December 1, 2012

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.

Austin Peralta in the studio, November 18, 2012 - Photo courtesy of Natasha Agrama

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.

"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", Final song at Blue Whale - Natasha Agrama with Austin Peralta - November 20, 2012.

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.

Austin Peralta November 20, 2012 - Courtesy of Natasha Agrama

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

---Tom Meek Note: The original version of this story/blog first appeared on (where the author is the Editor) on November 22, 2012.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Judith Hill - The Amazing Singer From The Michael Jackson Memorial & The Voice

Update March 2013:  Judith Hill will be featured on the 2013 season of "The Voice" on NBC - Her blind audition was selected by NBC as the teaser video for the upcoming season - Wetpaint / The Voice on Judith Hill

Update February 2012:  Judith Hill had ten songs selected by Spike Lee for the 2012 film "Red Hook Summer".  Lee introduced Hill at a February performance at the Key Club in Hollywood (link to video below).

Hill was featured in an article at the same time in LA Weekly - Judith Hill: Why Just About Everyone Is Falling for Her

July 7, 2009 was the day much of the world was introduced to the singer Judith Hill, who performed as part of the Michael Jackson Memorial in Los Angeles. Hill is a native of Pasadena, California, and was hired for the scheduled Michael Jackson London O2 shows only weeks before Jackson's untimely death.

I've had the fortune of knowing Judith over the past two years, having first heard her singing with the wonderful woodwind player Katisse Buckingham, most often at a club called The Baked Potato in Studio City just north of Los Angeles (Judith's vocals are included on two tracks on Katisse's "Lyrical Worker" album, "Just Listen" and "Fame Buffet"). I've heard and met any number of the greatest jazz singers of our times, including Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones and others. When I first heard Judith Hill, I was quite simply knocked out, and that doesn't happen hardly at all...she was just that good.

Hearing what I'd heard, I took the opportunity to regularly write about her appearances with Katisse for I encouraged Judith to use some of the things I'd written for promotional purposes (which she eventually did as part of her online press kit), because I thought she deserved more recognition as the outstanding young female singer of all I'd heard in L.A. I also began documenting video and audio of her performances. Included on this page are songs recorded in May, 2009 at the only solo performance Judith had given in more than a year, on this occasion as a guest of Ryan Cross' weekly "Soul Funk Night" at Harvelle's in Santa Monica, CA.

Judith only recently turned 25, but has a musical sophistication of someone twice her age. Her father, Robert "Peewee" Hill, is a R&B bass player and producer who has worked with artists including Jimmy Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Thelma Houston, her mother, Michiko, a classical pianist and choir director who has also worked with jazz luminaries including Wayne Shorter. When I struggled to find a comparison for Judith, the best I could come up with was a young Valerie (Ashford &) Simpson, but earthier. The subtlety and sophistication she displayed with Katisse's band was at times astonishing...showing so many of the little things in terms of phrasing, timing, pitch, accents and more reserved for only the finest veteran singers. Yet there she was.

As I heard her more over the past year, I became convinced that of the many fabulous musicians I've had the fortune of meeting over the past several years in Los Angeles, Judith was the one that had the best chance of becoming a major star. I shared that view with her, and many other people, while writing about her for as part of my weekly "About & Out" column.

I heard various samples of her own tunes as well, which she was slowly putting together in her family's music studio over the past year. I was especially taken with a recently finished song called "Excuse Me!", in which she'd somehow managed to create a danceable hip-hop tune in 7/4 with lyrics like these:

Imma take control of this infiltration
The CEO’s in a state of delirium
They can’t take me off the system’s hacked and I’ve cracked the code I’m roaming you
All downloading
Imma double the number of those revolting, the crowd is jolting the seats in the stadium
It’s a revolutionary type of a missionary coup lets move it common now
Everyday I come in everyway, I’m cashin radio plays, broadcastin up in 5 4 3 2 1

When I first heard it a few months ago, I played it twenty times (or so) in a was that striking. Judith currently has it available on her MySpace Music page (Play button & link below).

Excuse Me!

I was thrilled when Judith landed the Michael Jackson London O2 gigs, and we had a chance to talk about what it could mean for her career and more, including the pending release of her first solo CD, which she'd just finished around the time the call came from Jackson's people. I was equally devastated by the news of Jackson's passing, and what it might mean for what I thought would be the near-instant stardom that would follow her appearances in duets with Jackson in London. Hearing and seeing her perform live conveys something difficult to find the exact words, yet incredibly moving. Judith had told me that vocal director Dorian Holley had moved from asking her to sing the planned "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" duet with Jackson "just like the record", to "do what you do" after only a few rehearsals - I can only assume he'd heard what others of us had.

When Jackson's "This Is It" movie appeared in late October, 2009, a rehearsal performance of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" I'd heard about from Judith (she'd told me they had shot the duet during three separate rehearsals) appeared, and Judith's talent (Jackson had never heard her sing live prior) was inspiring enough to bring Jackson to full throat for the first time, extending the song with an improvised duet, to the almost giddy delight of the dancers and crew in attendance.

Judith Hill discusses working with Michael Jackson and the rehearsals for "This Is It" - The Turntable with Justis Mustaine

Hill also has fans in some of the toughest veteran musicians I know, people who are renowned for both sparing and faint praise, if any is to be offered at all. In Judith's case, even the most difficult critics have been floored. In producing her own record, Judith also used some of the most sophisticated veteran players in L.A. to get the sound she wanted for her own music.

Judith also learned in 2007 what a truly big stage was when she toured as a backup singer with French superstar Michel Polnareff, playing for audiences as large as 1 million people at the Eiffel Tower (video sample below).

I watched the live memorial to see what, if any, role Judith might play, as we'd not spoken since a few days after Jackson's death. I instantly knew her voice off-camera backing John Mayer's "Human Nature", with a purity that is one of her gifts (you can hear Judith come in distinctly just before the 3:00 mark singing a high part originally done by Jackson - scroll down for video).

Left To Right - John Mayer, Ken Stacey, Judith Hill, Darryl Phinnessee, Dorian Holley

Judith Hill with Orianthi Panagaris

When I began watching "We Are The World", and then "Heal The World" live, and saw Judith move front and center, I was in tears both for her fabulous performance, and the knowledge that the rest of the world would see what only a relative few of us had known before that point...a genuinely extraordinary talent that was almost impossible to deny.

Welcome, world, to Judith Hill.


Judith Hill Music

The Official Site Of Judith Hill

Judith Hill on MySpace