- Tue, 2005-03-01 10:47
Peter Cincotti is a 21-year-old New Yorker with a story to tell and a heart full of song.
Consider a small sampling of the pianist's life so far: While in high school, he gigged regularly at top clubs throughout Manhattan, studied with renowned jazz masters David Finck and James Williams, starred in the off-Broadway hit Our Sinatra and performed at the White House.
At the 2000 Montreux Jazz Fest, he won an award for a hard-swinging rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia. In 2001, Peter was the youngest artist ever to play the storied Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. Last year, he reached #1 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Charts and instantly made history by becoming the youngest solo artist to do so.
Cincotti did all this the time-honored way of piano men from Nat “King” Cole to Billy Joel—with two hands and a voice steeped in emotion.
I Like Music caught up with Peter in a posh London Hotel before the release of second album, On The Moon, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2003 self-titled debut, which adds another accomplishment to a resumé that already looks as if it belongs to an artist twice Cincotti’s age.
“I Like Music because… it’s the universal language.” Peter Cincotti
ILM: Your album On The Moon is out on March 14th. It’s been called ‘rebirth of cool’ and ‘phenomenally good’. Can you give me your own description of it?
Peter: Sure. I wanted it to be a mix of a lot of different things, considering there were a lot of different things that were a part of me at the time I was recording the record. And I wanted my original music to be the core. There’s only four of those songs on there, but I wanted those to be the core of the record, and any other songs from other generations, I wanted to treat them as originals. Ask myself how would I play this song if it had just been written today, even though it’s been around for 60 years how could I reinterpret it for myself. Because, I’ve never really been interested in recreating music, that’s not my goal. My goal is to create music. Whether I write it or somebody else writes it, that’s what gives me goose bumps; to reinvent something. There are a lot of great records out there, but there’s no point replicating what’s already good, so that’s not where I was coming from. And I wanted this album to be a blend of lot of different stylistic influences that have seeped in, from funk to pop to jazz to blues… there’s a lot that I wanted to be a part of this record, and I also wanted the instrumentation to be whatever was right for the song. I mean, we’d go from playing just in a trio to having 26 strings. My goal was to have each song come alive, and that was very much the vision behind it.
ILM: Do you know what’ll be the first single?
Peter: It’ll either be St Louis Blues or On The Moon, I’m not sure.
ILM: Which track did you have the most fun making in the studio?
Peter: The whole record was a big laugh. The one that I guess crept up on us was Valley High. That song I never thought I’d ever record, knowing the original version, it wasn’t something I heard myself doing. But one day, during the process of making the record, I was flicking through this songbook and came across Valley High and I kept flicking the pages, immediately dismissing it as an option, and then for some reason I flipped back and I was just staring at the sheet music, and I started hearing this different arrangement. For some reason, just looking at the page allowed me to think about it in a different way. So we went to the studio and fooled around with it, and that was one of my favourite tracks to record, one of the most fun. It just came together at the last moment and was so far from the original recording. It was really fun to personalize that song, considering that I never thought I would do it.
But that was the goal, if I was to do it, I had to be connected to the song in some way and treat it as if I wrote it, to temporarily erase a history of the song that I was already aware of.
ILM: Do you find, like the way a film student might be unable to just watch and enjoy a film and instead picks it apart and analyses each camera angle and so on, that you do that with music, so you’ll deconstruct and analyse songs you hear all the time?
Peter: It depends. I don’t find that happens really, and I’m glad I don’t find that. For film students to not be able to enjoy a film… but what tends to happen with me is, I’ll listen to music and if I enjoy it, I’ll just be enjoying it, but I’m going to listen to it again. So after a while I’ll start to deconstruct what it is that I’m liking, and start to recognize an arrangement, but it’s not like I’m listening to a song for the first time and analyzing or asking why they modulate here and why they put the drum beat there, and I hope I don’t start. But I do after several listens, I just hope I don’t start analyzing earlier.
ILM: What is in your CD player right now?
Peter: I’m listening to a lot of different songwriters, from Joni Mitchell to Coldplay. I really like the Maroon Five record, and a lot of songwriters: Billy Joel going back to Carol King and Fats Waller, and just seeing how songs are created and why they work so well.
ILM: You’ve had an amazing musical life and career, with the most recent achievements being that last year you reached #1 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Charts and made history doing so. And then in 2003 you got to open for the mighty Ray Charles. How does it feel to have achieved all of this already?
Peter: A lot of it is frantic, and sometimes you have to force yourself to stop and smell the roses. But I always have my eye on the music, so sometimes I don’t allow myself to enjoy some of those moments because I’m always thinking about the next step musically and where I want to go and what I’m writing. But it’s easy to get caught up in all these external things, these accolades and press and media and photo shoots – all the stuff that I’m happy to do and honoured that people want to do them and it’s a huge compliment, but my responsibility as a musician is to draw the line somewhere. I have to remember why I’m here in the first place, and I have to keep up the practicing, and that’s very much a priority of mine. So it’s just a case of balancing that with all the other stuff.
You can’t have too much of one, but that goes for the music too, you can’t have too much of that either, so space is good. Going to the movies, going to clubs, hanging out with friends and not doing music is good, but it’s definitely a balancing act between all of that.
ILM: You’ve certainly achieved a lot! What ambitions do you still have to achieve?
Peter: Well there’s so much that I want to do. I want to keep touring and seeing the world. I’d love to collaborate with different artists that have a different approach to music than I do. That’s what really interests me, to put two different people in a room and see what they come up with. That’s the beauty of music and of being a musician, there’s so much freedom there. I want to keep writing for myself and for other people as well. This past year of writing lyrics has really changed the whole process, as I wasn’t writing the lyrics before.
As much as I have a direction for where I want to go, at the same time I don’t want to have one, because some of the stuff I’m doing now I’d never have thought I’d be doing a year ago, and that’s what happens because you’re constantly evolving and I want it to be an organic process, so music takes you on it’s own course.
That’s what has been happening my whole life since I was three. What I liked at seven was different to what I liked at nine, and I want to make records that represent that. People ask me if I feel pressure to make a certain kind of record, but I don’t at all, because, my pressure is just to make sure that record represents how I feel. And I’m supported by people who at least support that, so that’s the bottom line.
My goal has been achieved if I like the record, whether it’s successful or not. I wouldn’t make a record that I didn’t like that would guarantee success. My goal was achieved the day I left that studio, because that whole process was 100% my own and collaborating with the amazing people I did, and making sure it felt right, from conception to the mixing I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
ILM: It must be easier to perform songs that come from you, that you’ve written?
Peter: I don’t know if it’s easier or harder, but it’s certainly more fulfilling. I won’t sing a song, even if it’s written by someone else, if I don’t feel the lyric. That’s the prerequisite a song needs to have; I need to feel that connection. But there’s nothing like creating and performing and seeing the audience singing lyrics you’ve written six months earlier. That’s really fulfilling.
On my first record my mum wrote lyrics. When I was 13-14 I’d write music and she’d write a bunch of lyrics to some of those songs, and we picked three from those and put them on my first record. And that just came out of nowhere. I had all these bits of music and said to her, "why don’t you try writing lyrics for them," so she did for a while, until I started to write my own… and now she’s out of a job.
But writing my own lyrics changed my music and the way I play other people’s music. It opened up this whole new world.
ILM: Can you describe the Peter Cincotti process of making music?
Peter: It varies, but the writing process for me is different all the time. Sometimes I’ll have a lyrical idea that will spark things off, sometimes I’ll write the music first, other times it’s music and lyrics at the same time. More often than not though, the idea I end up with is very different from the idea I start off with. I’ve realized that it’s not about that initial idea, what’s important is that the spark was started. So you’ve got to get that initial spark, because it’s that which gets you in, gets you into the music making process.
ILM: You’ve been playing the piano since you were just three. What is it about the piano that captures your imagination?
Peter: I think its ability to be really minimal and its ability to act like a full orchestra. It’s one of the few instruments that can be played for any purpose. I wasn’t thinking that when I was three, but now that’s what I think is special about the instrument. You can play solo or blend with a group, there’s a lot of flexibility and it can be a part of any style of music. And that’s what I need as a musician, thinking about music from a holistic point of view. So it’s ever changing and the piano is an instrument that’ll be there with you the whole time, whatever direction you take.
ILM: What was it like for you and your sister growing up in New York and going to Madison Square Garden clubs and Broadway shows?
Peter: It was amazing, I mean that’s an education in itself. I didn’t really appreciate what was handed to me, until I was a little older. Just growing up in that city was a musical education. You can pretty much satisfy any musical need at any time, there’s a lot going on. From rock concerts to Broadway shows, to jazz and blues clubs. So that fuelled my passion for music.
ILM: So, what’s the best thing about New York and the worst thing?
Peter: The best thing is the fast pace of life that I guess I like to live. But I don’t know anything else because I was born there, but some people may also consider that to be the worst thing, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. When I go out to the country and hear the birds chirping it scares the crap out of me. It really freaks me out. I need to hear a horn blowing or a gunshot. Urban sounds.
ILM: You’re the face of Zegna and have starred in Spiderman 2 and Beyond the Sea opposite Kevin Spacey (who’s a massive fan). Can you tell me how that all came about? Did you dream of getting into movies?
Peter: That kind of just happened. Kevin Spacey saw me play in a club here in London actually, and he asked me to be in this film and told me what it was about, and it just seemed right for me to do. I said I haven’t acted, and he said, "if you can sing a song the way you do, then you can act," and he threw me in at the deep end. But it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I had so much fun on the set, and it gave me a lot of time to focus on my music, ironically, it gave me what I didn’t expect it to give me – most of the On The Moon record was written while I was doing this film, because I had all this time waiting around and had weekends off, a totally new concept to me. Life on the road leaves you little time for that, so it was a balance of both lives at the same time.
And I learned so much, and being with those amazing actors, like John Goodman and Bob Hoskins, and Kevin Spacey and just to be in a scene with them, I was like, "what the hell am I doing here?" So I learned a lot and that there are a lot of similarities between music and acting that’s based on instinct, that Kevin Spacey as a director really embraced. If you felt something he’d say go with it, and that’s basically how I approach music. Also seeing how the other actors reacted was similar to seeing how different band members react to something. So it wasn’t really acting any more. John Goodman says something and you laugh, because he delivers it so well, meanwhile you’re doing your part and bounce off each other.
ILM: Do you have any tips or advice for budding artists and producers starting out?
Peter: The best advice I could give is to follow your instinct. The more you get in the ‘business’ side of music, you learn a lot and have to remember that you’re the one on stage and that you have to play what feels right for you. Everybody has an opinion and everybody is right, but you’ve got to trust yourself.
ILM: What songs, do you enjoy playing live the most?
Peter: I like playing my original music live, but a lot of the improvisation based songs are always fun to play because they’re always different and take you to new places, so it’s kind of fun. St Louis Blues, some of these funk blues groove based songs are fun to play.
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Peter: In New York, that’s where I feel at home. London is one of my favourite places as well, but New York is home, where my friends are, my family are and where I want to be when I write.
On The Moon is out on March 21st, 2005.