Although Peter Cincotti was considered young when he released his self-titled debut album in 2003 at the age of 19, the pianist and singer had already been performing professionally for seven years. Cincotti began playing on a toy piano, a gift from his grandmother, at the age of three, when he was able to pick up the chords to accompany "Happy Birthday" by ear. He began taking piano lessons the following year, and eventually studied with a host of classical and jazz luminaries, as well as at the Manhattan School of Music. When he was seven he planned to attend a concert by his idol, Harry Connick Jr., but fell ill. His mother, sister, and cousin attended anyway, and after the show Cincotti's sister visited Connick backstage, presenting him with flowers and describing her talented younger brother. Connick called Cincotti and asked him to send a tape, then invited Cincotti to visit him at a show in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After hearing the youngster play backstage, Connick invited Cincotti to play a few tunes in front of the audience.
Cincotti began composing at age nine and drew critical notice when, at the age of 12, he played a highly challenging Stephen Sondheim piece at a Brooklyn concert dedicated to the composer. That same year he began playing professionally in clubs throughout New York. Enamored of his parents' music collection, which included George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and other songmasters, Cincotti eventually began adding vocals to his arrangements. "It was something I always wanted to do," he told the London Times, adding, "But I think I was hiding behind the piano." He still considers himself primarily a pianist, Cincotti told the Washington Post. "I consider myself a piano player first," he said. "I started playing when I was three and started singing when I was fifteen, so singing is relatively new to me still. Even though I've been playing piano longer, both are separate things I want to keep developing and getting better at. And then there's the third thing, playing and singing, which is a whole other art I want to develop."
In 1997 Connick arranged for Cincotti to study piano in New Orleans with his former teacher, jazz great Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford. Cincotti toured with Connick in 1999 and appeared at the Montreaux Jazz Festival the following year, nabbing a prize in the festival's piano competition. In 2001 he was cast in the off-Broadway production of Our Sinatra, a tribute to Frank Sinatra, to whom Cincotti is often compared.
Cincotti graduated from Horace Mann High School that same year and enrolled as a freshman studying liberal arts at New York's Columbia University. The decision to study humanities rather than attend a conservatory was a calculated one. "You don't learn music by just studying music," Cincotti told the Christian Science Monitor. "As you grow as a person, as you learn about things that affect you, your music changes, and the way you approach your instrument changes. If you read something by Plato that affects you in a certain way, suddenly you'll grow."
Cincotti continued to perform, scheduling gigs around his coursework. In February of 2002, at the age of 18, he became the youngest musician ever to headline at New York's prestigious Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. The venue had previously launched the careers of Connick, Diana Krall, and Jane Monheit. Legendary producer Phil Ramone caught Cincotti at Feinstein's, in the Regency Hotel, and signed on to produce the young musician's first album. "He's extremely sensitive and hears things and knows things from listening to records and playing styles, from Fats Waller to almost anybody you could name," Ramone told the Boston Globe. The result was 2002's Peter Cincotti, released on the Concord label and featuring standards such as Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," as well as original tunes written by Cincotti and featuring lyrics by his mother, Cynthia.
Cincotti told the New York Times he hoped to introduce a new generation of listeners to classic songs and styles. "One of my dreams is to expose this music to young people," he said. "I'm nineteen and I fell in love with it; others can too. I think it's just as relevant to the present and future as it was to the past. I was brought up with this music. Most kids my age aren't. They're unaware of it." While drawing inevitable comparisons to Connick, and even Sinatra, whose songs he deliberately avoided on the album, Cincotti insisted his look and approach were his own. "I would never wear something on the cover I wouldn't wear in real life, or play a song on the record I wouldn't play in real life," he told the Boston Globe. "Everything about the record, from the art on the cover to the music, had to be completely honest and true. That was one of the things me and Phil Ramone were disussing even before we went into the studio—we had to make sure that each song was truly representative of who I am musically at this point in my life."
The album immediately established Cincotti as an artist exhibiting substance beyond his years, and he became the youngest musician ever to top Billboard 's traditional jazz chart, beating out Krall and Tony Bennett. "Perhaps Cincotti discovered early on that good music doesn't need a gimmick," wrote Matt Warner in the Dayton Daily News. "Perhaps the same things that have attracted people to Cincotti's music are what grabbed his ear to begin with—great melodies and meaningful lyrics, in the hands of a well-crafted musician of extraordinary personal depth." Cincotti took a leave of absence from Columbia to tour for the album, and followed it up with the two-song Christmas release My Favorite Time of Year, and then 2004's On the Moon. He also appeared briefly in the movie Spider Man 2 and landed a feature role in the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea.
With his penchant for jazz standards, Cincotti told the Washington Post that his age necessitated caution in song selection. "Every song on the record I handpicked and wanted to make sure that I felt very connected to it in some way," he said of his debut. "I don't want to be singing songs that are well beyond my years, that are so beyond me that I feel disconnected to them, and I don't think any of the ones I do are. I think it's perfectly legitimate for a nineteen-year-old to be singing about love, or wanting love and a lot of different emotions. I try to stay away from songs that talk about lost love and when the world was young. I'm not going to be singing 'The Second Time Around.' I haven't had my first time around yet!"
Cincotti told the Boston Globe he is taking his sudden, and early, success in stride. "Every time I see myself in a magazine, it's kind of weird. It's a little surreal," he said. "I try to keep my head screwed on straight and not lose track of my goal. I don't ever want to let the media or anything, as good as it may be, take away from my musical goals, practicing and developing as a musician, because that is my first and foremost priority."
For the Record . . .
Born in 1983 in New York, NY. Education: Studied classical piano at Manhattan School of Music; studied jazz piano privately with Ellis Marsalis and others; pursued undergraduate studies at Columbia University, New York City.
Played onstage with Harry Connick Jr. at the age of seven; made professional debut at age 12; toured with Connick, 1999; played the Montreaux Jazz Festival, 2000, winning the piano competition prize; joined cast of off-Broadway production Our Sinatra, 2001; at 18, became youngest performer to headline at Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, 2002; released self-titled debut album, produced by Phil Ramone, 2003, followed by On the Moon, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Concord Records, 270 North Canyon Dr. #1212, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Website—Peter Cincotti Official Website: http://www.petercincotti.com.
Peter Cincotti, Concord, 2003.
My Favorite Time of Year, Concord, 2003.
On the Moon, Concord, 2003.
Boston Globe, March 30, 2003.
Christian Science Monitor, May 30, 2003.
Dayton Daily News, July 25, 2004.
New York Times, February 9, 2003.
Times (London, England), July 7, 2003.
Washington Post, April 25, 2003.
"Peter Cincotti," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 28, 2004).