Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflections on Young, Gone Pianists

Make a new sound on the earth
  Play skillfully with a loud noise…
Austin Peralta, 1990-2012

“The joint is mobbed – it’s Friday night,” the saxophonist remembers. “Funky club, great session, great players – but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to meet the piano player…All I noticed was a little guy, playing music I’d never heard before hunched over the piano with an inch thick pile of hand-written music on the bench beside him…The piano player turned around, slightly dazed – and I saw a kid.”

The saxophonist’s name is Leroy “Sam” Perkins, and he’s recalling the night at Boston’s Bowdoin Bar & Grill in 1945 when he first saw and heard a young 14-year-old prodigy named Richard Henryk Twardzik. Within a decade the kid would be dead of a heroin overdose in a Paris hotel—even before the release of his groundbreaking (and only) trio session on Richard Bock’s L.A.-based Pacific Jazz Records. Years later, fellow Boston pianist Marc Puricelli would tell writer James Gavin: “If he had lived, [Twardzik] probably would have changed the course of jazz piano.” No less than Charles “Yardbird” Parker and Chet Baker – both of whom he backed – considered him a genius.
On this rainier-than-usual final week of November, as the city’s music community is still reeling from the ripple effects of the death of 22-year-old L.A.-based pianist Austin Peralta, we returned to this brilliant, near-forgotten artist to find some sort of solace for losing someone so promising at such a damnably young age. The jazz world, of course, is full of such tales: Parker, Buddy Bolden, Bix Biederbecke, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Christian, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy. (If you want to get even more general about the vulnerabilities of young musicians, you might want to add in Jay Reatard, D. Boon, Richie ValensKurt Cobain or The Notorious B.I.G.)

Like Peralta, Twardzik was thin and tall with bony, delicate features and a perpetual baby face. (He reminded a fellow musician “of someone you’d see on the streets of Vienna in the twenties.”) Taking equal influence from Art Tatum and Art Rubenstein, Twardzik melded classical harmony (especially Bartok), blues and boogie-woogie with the complex, avant-gardisms of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, making him a forerunner of Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans—and Austin Peralta. “As Twardzik brought these elements into his combo work, he created a provocative hybrid, much more than mere imitation, but rather a fresh trail blazed in the annals of American music,” wrote West Coast jazz historian Ted Goia in a 2009 appreciation. “There are…hints of deranged Harlem stride, oddball walking chords, falling snowflakes of harmonic color alighting on the high register of the keyboard. Only a few jazz pianists of this period would have been able even to imitate this futuristic style back in 1953, let alone create it afresh.”
Richard Twardzik, 1931-1955
(w/ Chet Baker in background)
Peralta’s style was Twardzik brought past the Millennium. Like Twardzik, he was born to an artistically minded father (Z-boy skateboard legend/film director Stacy Peralta) and was classically trained from a young age, later falling under the tutelage of older lions like saxophonist/bandleader Buddy Collette and pianist/composer Alan Pasqua. He could play acoustic standards like “Green Dolphin Street” or “Someday My Prince Will Come” on a Yamaha mini-grand and then switch to a simultaneous, two-handed fusion attack on a Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3. Both pianists, when they performed, seemed to be driving themselves further and further into a trance. Like Twardzik, Peralta was musically omnivorous: electronica, swing, psychedelia, Indian music, groove, funk, hard bop and classical all mixed and fell into new forms under his long fingers. The title of his third solo album (Endless Planets) and its song titles all spoke to some sort of trippy, Siddhartha-like spiritual journey: “The Underwater Mountain Odyssey,” “Renaissance Bubbles,” “Capricornus,” “The Lotus Flower.” You listened to it, and you couldn’t wait to see where it would go next.
Along with such contemporary keyboard iconoclasts as Robert Glasper, Matthew Shipp and Vijay Iyer, Peralta reintroduced a bit of verve and fire to what is still called “Jazz Music” but years ago stopped resembling such a monolithic reduction. 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.” Dig it: he even formed a group called Deathgasm.

Peralta was also a part of the stable of talent for jazz-inflected rapper/producer Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Records, an extremely exciting and vital musical milieu that – along with Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar of South L.A.’s OFWGKTA collective – has put Los Angeles back on the vanguard musical map. Unfortunately, Peralta is now the scene’s first tragedy – and still a bit of an enigma, as 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.”
Dick Twardzik died on October 21, 1955, thirty-five years and four days before Austin Peralta was born. A thin bronze tombstone in a cemetery near West Newberry, Massachusetts marks Twardzik’s final resting place. It is emblazoned with the words of the 33rd Psalm: ‘MAKE A NEW SOUND ON THE EARTH, PLAY SKILLFULLY WITH A LOUD NOISE."
Amen to that.


  1. I keep coming back to this article over and over again with tears in my eyes. A truly tragic story. Great writing, Matthew.