Connick-styled crescendo

It’s strange to imagine a kid too young to drink headlining jazz clubs like New York’s Red Blazer.

Stranger still is that, the better part of a decade after he started gracing such venues, piano sensation Peter Cincotti is still too young to drink.

“I think age has very little to do with this,” objects Cincotti from his home in Manhattan. “I’ve been doing this all my life.”

While seducing the ivories may be second nature to Cincotti, it’s hard to conceive that such impressive talent and rapidly rising celebrity are packaged in a 19-year-old Columbia University sophomore.

Long touted as a child prodigy, Cincotti was playing at age 3. By 7, he’d joined Harry Connick Jr. on stage at Bally’s Grand in Atlantic City, quickly becoming the smooth-voiced pianist/actor’s protege.

A few years later, Cincotti — who’d been been playing around New York since his early teens — was a guest performer on Connick’s tour in support of his mentor’s 1999 album Come by Me. Cincotti then won the Montreaux Jazz Festival’s Piano Competition in 2000. Headlining The Algonquin, Cincotti became the youngest performer to play the hotel’s renowned Oak Room, which also nurtured the emerging fame of jazz vocalist Diana Krall.

Nonetheless, Cincotti insists age is nothing but a number.

“I think the music will speak to people despite the artist’s age,” he declares. The teenager passes up rock and hip-hop in favor of vintage idols like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

“I don’t remember one specific moment where I said, ‘This is it, I’m going to be a jazz musician,'” Cincotti muses. “I went through many different musical stages, beginning with boogie-woogie piano playing, and I was exposed to all different kinds of music, from Blood, Sweat and Tears to Bill Evans.” His influences make themselves known on Cincotti’s self-titled debut CD (Concord, 2002), which includes the Billie Holiday chestnut “Comes Love,” and “Come Live Your Life With Me,” best known from The Godfather soundtrack.

Produced by the celebrated Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Elton John, Tony Bennett), the CD, with its something-old, something-new pastiche, shows off Cincotti’s prowess as an arranger: He adeptly blends musical eras, the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” meeting Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.”

“I wanted the songs to represent where I am musically,” the pianist explains. The CD also includes three of Cincotti’s own compositions — “I Changed the Rules,” “Lovers, Secrets and Lies” and “Are You the One?” featuring lyrics penned by his mother.

The odd collaboration resulted from a whim. Cincotti, who’s been composing music since age 9, hadn’t yet put words to his songs when he invited his mother to try her hand at writing lines to some of his taped work.

“It’s been fun,” he says of the mother-son effort. Future releases may feature Cincotti’s own writing — an art form he’s recently begun to explore.

“I’d never thought of [writing lyrics], but now I want to keep going with it.”

Like any other young performer, he yearns to branch out.

“I want to keep writing; that’s an important part of my own development,” the pianist continues. “I’d like to write for other singers, or compose scores for movies.”

On top of that, Cincotti recently told The New York Times that he’d like to record, tour and appear in films (perhaps following the example of Harry Connick Jr.?).

Oh — and he’s also a full-time college student.

“I’m getting a liberal-arts education,” says Cincotti, quick to point out that he picked Columbia over a conservatory because he wants to be well-rounded. “I’ve always studied music privately,” he adds; his teachers include Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton and Branford).

“There’s a number of great musicians in town I try to study with, but I also learn a lot from just playing with others,” Cincotti notes. (He names the members of his quartet — bassist David Finck, tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer and drummer Kenny Washington — as mentors.)

Despite the raves of critics, and such heady pronouncements as the Times’ “Going on legend” tag, Cincotti seems to be keeping a level head. On the phone, he’s thoughtful and unassuming, revealing how he (unlike most kids his age) wanted to go to college close to home.

Of course, convenience also played a part in his choice of schools — the majority of Cincotti’s shows are in the New York vicinity.

“There will be some touring coming up because of my first CD,” he notes, adding, with the verbal equivalent of a shrug, “I don’t know too much about that. Thing are in the works.”

Actually, that last sentence pretty much sums up Cincotti’s life at the moment. He’s got a lot going on — the pianist recently appeared on CBS’ popular Sunday Morning — and even bigger plans ahead. Even his day-to-day schedule is a roller-coaster ride: “I practice anywhere from one hour to six hours, depending on how much time I have,” he relates. “Sometimes it’s just a half hour if I have a lot of school work.”

The smooth result, is, of course, Cincotti’s album, wherein his considerable mastery leaps the tough generation gap between “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Spinning Wheel.”

Since he’s off to such a great start, it’s hard not to speculate where Cincotti will be a few years down the road — no doubt busy rivaling his own jazz heroes. Though, true to his age, Cincotti’s feelings on the subject sound more like the musings of a rock-star wannabe than a polished and celebrated pianist.

“The most important thing with being a musician,” the performer asserts, “is to constantly evolve.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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