Peter Cincotti: Sunshine Daze
Peter Cincotti has a cold. It's a gray Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, and the wunderkind vocalist/pianist has shunted aside his chicken salad in favor of hot tea laced with lots of honey and lemon. Suddenly, as if on cue, Sinatra, whom Cincotti has played on stage and whose soaring, early-career trajectory the tender-aged moon child (born July 11, 1983) is emulating with last year's eponymous debut album and his recent follow-up On the Moon, pours forth from an overhead speaker, swingin' alongside Count Basie on "Fly Me to the Moon."
Cincotti keeps apologizing for a nagging, hacking cough that, he confesses, proved barely containable throughout his previous evening's performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He's due at Symphony Hall in about five hours for a second ASO date, then takes off the following morning for two days of press in Berlin, before heading to Paris with his collaborators and closest compadres-bass player Barak Mori, drummer/percussionist Mark McLean and saxophonist Scott Kreitzer-for a week of publicity gigs. Such is the whirlwind that the 21-year-old's life has become, a jet-fueled cacophony of concerts, club dates, recording sessions, interviews and, when he can find a quiet hour or two during a cross-country or trans-Atlantic flight, songwriting.
No wonder it's taking him seven days, and counting, to shake a common cold.
Still, it's testament to Cincotti's professionalism, gentlemanly politeness and, no doubt, the seeming invincibility that keeps vigorous twentysomethings going and going when the rest of us would be in bed forcing liquids and vitamin C, that he arrives for our afternoon-long interview not only on time but eager to talk about everything from On the Moon and his role in the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea to the expanding slate of young male crooners and his enthusiasm for Eminem.
In photos like the smoky ones that adorn his discs, Cincotti is purposely made to look every inch the bespoke hipster, the heir apparent to Sinatra, Darin and his one-time mentor Harry Connick Jr. In person, though, Cincotti more closely resembles Ray Romano's significantly better-looking kid brother, and speaks with a gentrified New Yawk accent that, a shade dissimilar to his velvet-smooth singing voice, sounds like Romano by way of Kevin Kline.
That rarest of urbanites, born and raised in a city where everyone tends to be from somewhere else, Cincotti credits New York (and a culturally savvy mom and dad) with his eclectic musical education: "My parents took my sister and me out to hear everything, from rock concerts to Broadway shows to jazz clubs. So, at different times I was attracted to different things. One time it was Jerry Lee Lewis, then Nat "King" Cole, then Stevie Wonder. My record collection includes all sorts of different artists. Right now I'm listening to a lot of Eminem. I love his phrasing, and the production on his records, and I think his ideas are brilliant. So, I have Eminem sitting next to Miles Davis, who's sitting next to Sting. Beyonce is beside Hank Mobley. The more I've listened to, the more the genre lines have disappeared. I hear different relationships between artists that I never would have mentioned in the same sentence. It all blends together, which is really fascinating to me."
Much has been previously made of his childhood encounter with Connick and the older pianist/crooner's generous encouragement of Cincotti's career ambitions; but there were many others, most notably bassist David Finck and the late, great pianist James Williams, who provided selfless assistance. "David has been an extraordinary supporter and teacher," enthuses Cincotti. "I've known him since I was about 14, and I remember the first time I met him. I was getting ready for one of my very first club gigs, at the Red Blazer. My friend Justin Biaggi was playing drums and we needed a bass player. I asked my piano teacher if he knew of anybody, and he gives me the greatest bass player in New York!"
Gathering in a Manhattan studio to rehearse, Cincotti admits of his prepubescent self that he didn't "[know] what I was doing. In comes David, gives us a pretty blank stare, and I say, 'All right, let's go!' and he says, 'Go where? Do you have any music, do you have any charts?' And instead of being one of those guys who just walks out of a situation like that, because we were so obviously amateurs, he did the opposite, taking me under his wing and teaching me so much. I feel so fortunate to be able to say that somebody as well rounded and respected a musician as David Finck took an interest in me. It's something I will never forget."
Another early booster was legendary promoter Ron Delsner, who encouraged all sorts of industry insiders to check out Cincotti's gigs. Chief among them was Phil Ramone, who approached Cincotti after a performance at Joe's Pub and offered to produce his first album. "Well, I was flipping out," Cincotti laughs. "I mean, to not only meet him but have him say that the same night, I just couldn't believe it. Yet, even though I'm describing how much in awe I was of him, all of that disappeared quickly because he's such a down-to-earth guy that when we starting working together in the studio I pretty much forgot who I was dealing with. Every once in a while I'd stop and think, 'Oh my God, this is Phil Ramone here, and I'm talking to him like he's my friend!' He has a way of talking to you on a very personal level that makes you feel incredibly comfortable, and his knowledge as a musician and a producer is encyclopedic. He's a great guy to have by your side in the studio."
It was Ramone who led Cincotti to the Concord label. Though he humbly suggests "there were, I guess, a lot of record companies checking me out," the fit with the California-based label, know for it's superlative, wide-ranging work with everyone from Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney to Nnenna Freelon and Karrin Allyson, seems ideal. "I've never experienced making music with another record company, so I have nothing to compare it to, but the thing I love about the people at Concord is that they're very supportive of fusing different music styles. Neither of the two records I've made was formulized; there was no specific concept behind either of them. [Concord] was simply willing to go with whatever I was feeling at the time, which, I hear, is pretty rare. People tell me, 'You're lucky to have complete freedom to play what you want and record what you want,' and, at the end of the day, it is very fulfilling. It's never like, 'Oh, we need to achieve our sales goal' or 'What demographic will this song appeal to?'"
Cincotti's first disc, released in March 2003 and featuring Finck on bass with Kenny Washington on drums and Kreitzer guesting on sax, was, he says, purposefully "a straightahead trio record, because that's what I was feeling at the time." But when it came time to develop On the Moon, again produced by Ramone, Cincotti insists he had no expectations. "It wasn't like, 'Well, let me see. The first record was successful, so should I do a second round of the same?' I couldn't allow myself to do that, because that's not what I'm feeling now," he says. "I've written songs over the last 18 months that I really needed to have documented. I knew exactly what had to be [on the second album]. There was no decision to be made. It was just obvious to say, 'Well, the last year and a half of writing music and being on the road [reflects what] I'm doing now, so that's the most honest way to proceed. Whatever happens on a media level or a sales level is almost irrelevant because, as much as I want the album to sell, my goals have already been achieved."
Four Cincotti-penned tunes form, he says, "the core of the record. I wanted every other song to follow in their footsteps and, whether they're standards or whatever music generation they're from, I wanted to treat them as if they were songs I'd written myself."
On the Moon's title track speaks of the loneliness and disconnection Cincotti has experienced while traversing the globe and living out of suitcases. "People always ask me, 'Who's the girl you're singing about?' But it's not about anyone in particular. It's not based on a personal relationship, but is instead about the sense of isolation I've felt."
The diametric opposite of the wistful, dreamily romantic "On the Moon" is "The Girl for Me Tonight," which embraces much the same cavalier, love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude as Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With." "It's not about love at all," Cincotti explains with a rakish smile. "It's about one night with a girl and that's it. The next morning, forget about it. People say, 'Well, that's pretty terrible,' but that's not how I am and has nothing to do with how I feel about women. It's just a story I want to tell."
Genuinely heartfelt, though, is "He's Watching," a tribute to Cincotti's late father. "Yeah," he concedes, "that's right, but I don't really like to say that because I try to do everything I can not to give listeners a preconceived notion of a song. I rarely talk about myself in my songs because I want the listener to decide whether he connects or not. To me, that song is about my father, but it could be about anybody. People come up to me and ask, 'Is it about God?' and I say, 'It's whatever you want it to be.'"
The album's covers run the gamut from W.C. Handy and Cole Porter to a double dose of Carole King. Wryly noting that King's "Some Kind of Wonderful" may be "the only happy love song on the record," Cincotti says the album's theme is purposefully one of isolation, as reflected in the second King selection, "Up On the Roof." His imaginative treatment of Porter's "I Love Paris," typically served up as a postcard-pretty travelog, oozes with lusty desire. "One day I came up with a different sort of bass line and thought, 'Imagine "I Love Paris" over this line.' Then, when it came to the lyrics, I wanted to bring out that strongly sexual element."
Another famous salute to a distant, romantic destination, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Bali H'ai" from South Pacific, arrived on On the Moon via a curious route. "That's a song that I never would have even considered doing," he says. "Not that I didn't like the original version, but I just never associated it to what I do musically. Then I was asked by Katie Couric to participate in a fundraising event with all these people from the rock and pop worlds. Everybody had to do a Rodgers and Hart song. I bought a Richard Rodgers book, came across "Bali Ha'i" and realized I couldn't do it because it wasn't Rodgers and Hart [Cincotti instead, at Couric's request, performed "My Funny Valentine"]. But something made me go back to "Bali Ha'i." I stared at the music and started seeing a different approach to it, then we fooled around with it in the studio and recorded it. It's interesting, because if I'd never been invited for that private event and hadn't had the assignment to find a Richard Rodgers song, "Bali Ha'i" most certainly wouldn't be on my record-just as, if I hadn't ventured out in the rain one night to see Barak at the Village Vanguard and heard [the bassist] end his set with 'St. Louis Blues,' it probably wouldn't have made it either."
Unlike its predecessor, Cincotti's sophomore disc includes one nonvocal track, a multishaded "Cherokee" with evocative hints of Tatum and Garner that alternates between laid-back and blistering. "I didn't want to come right out of the box like everybody else," he explains, "so I wrote this arrangement that created two different feelings, stating the melody by starting in a medium tempo then moving into the fast tempo for the middle and then going back to the melody again. I wanted to end my record instrumentally. It's another important part of what I wanted to do with this album."
Heading into the studio to record On the Moon, Cincotti was adamant that his touring mates-Mori, McLean and Kreitzer-be there with him. "I can't imagine doing it any other way," he says. "You're on the road with these people, you build personal relationships, [establish] stronger communication and develop as a group. These guys are so important to me on so many levels. We've become best friends. Barak and Mark are in their 20s. Scott is a little older, but he's really younger than all of us. He's the teenager of the group. We're all of the same generation, so we have a lot in common and are steeped in the same music. It comes through on stage and it comes through on the record. These are great people to collaborate with."
In addition to his worldwide touring and promotion in support of On the Moon, Cincotti is busily publicizing his impressive performance, as Bobby Darin's childhood pal and longtime music director, Dick Behrke, in Beyond the Sea. Marking Cincotti's second screen appearance in less than six months (he previously had a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo in Spider-Man 2, playing piano in the Planetarium lounge), Beyond the Sea premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September.
Writer/producer Kevin Spacey, who also cowrote the screenplay, stars as Darin and does all his own singing (proving a remarkable vocal doppelganger for the pop-jazz-folk icon), says he hired Cincotti, despite his limited acting experience, because, "Peter is a great musician and I was determined that the role of Dick Behrke be played by a musician. I didn't want to have to cut away when he was playing. It's not a big role but Peter did a great job."
Returning the compliment, Cincotti says Spacey is, "A great Bobby Darin, he really is. He was also so cool and lots of fun to hang out with. I told him straight out, right at the beginning, that I'm a musician not an actor, and he said, 'Well, that's what I want. I'm not hiring you to play a serial killer.' What really attracted me to the film is that music is such a major character. I got to play with different musicians, play in different keys and do songs that I wouldn't choose for myself. I was playing a sideman, and there was lots for me to learn from that role. I really enjoyed the entire process, particularly doing some of the prerecording in London's legendary Abbey Road Studios. Obviously on an acting level it was all completely new to me, but on a musical level it was, in a lot of ways, an equally valuable experience."
But Cincotti has no plans to follow parallel screen and music paths. "Much of the reason why I wanted to do [Beyond the Sea] is because it fit so well with what I'm already doing. I had a ball doing it and I'd like to do something like it again, but my life is music. I'll see what projects present themselves, figure out what feels right and just take it one day at a time."
Though he seems poised for Darin-sized success, such is Cincotti's philosophy about all aspects of his escalating career. Contemplating his professional future, he says, "A lot of what I want to do is based around writing. There's no feeling quite like creating something that is truly your own. I'd also like to collaborate with people who have a different take on music. Like, I wonder what would happen with me and Alicia Keys? I don't hear my name in the same sentence as her's-and that's exactly what I like about it. Actually, that's one of the things I loved about the Grammys this year, seeing Chick Corea with the Foo Fighters and Arturo Sandoval with Justin Timberlake. It was really refreshing. But as far as having a specific direction I want to go in, I don't. I'm split down the line. Half of me wants to leave it up to whatever happens and half of me wants a certain amount of direction. But that's the beauty of music. You never know where it's gonna go."
Delighted by the "regeneration of male blood" that has recently invaded the pop-jazz field, Cincotti says he "very much enjoys" what such like-minded guys as Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble are doing, and figures "the more the better. Because we're not doing hip-hop or rap, people tend to lump us together in the same group. I think, though, we're all very different. The best thing about having all this young blood is that more and more younger people are coming out to shows and embracing the music."
If there's a downside to Cincotti's skyrocketing success, it's the absence of anything even remotely resembling a personal life. "I had a girlfriend, but I don't now," he laments. "It's just too hard. Spending every day in a different city, how could you possibly cultivate anything? That's where 'The Girl for Me Tonight' comes in," he kids.
Bandmates Mori, McLean and Kreitzer have, he says, "become my family. We're always together, we experience everything together and we all find it pretty amazing. I know I'm going to look back on this time and think, 'Wow! That was pretty cool.'"
The tiny bit of down time Cincotti's allowed is usually reserved for his one and only vice: Texas hold 'em poker. It's a passion he shares with his traveling buddies and one he ropes me into after finishing the Atlanta Symphony gig and charmingly handling a couple dozen, mostly female, fans at the stage door.
Back in his hotel room, the boys' natty black suits have been jettisoned for jeans and sweatshirts, and they're kicking back, patiently teaching their poker-challenged journalist guest the rules, talking a little shop-recalling how terrific k.d. lang was when they opened for her at Newport in July, relating how tough it was to get close to Natalie Cole when they shared a Chicago bill because her entourage is so huge and protective and piecing together their Paris itinerary-but focusing primarily on the game at hand.
Interestingly, all four seem about as equally matched around the poker table as they are on the bandstand, but by 2 a.m. Cincotti has taken a commanding lead. Seems he's getting used to having the cards stacked in his favor.
Originally published in December 2004