Peter Cincotti breathes new life into old-school jazz

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Peter Cincotti seemingly walked out of another time, that long-ago era when crooners with smooth matinee-idol looks donned tailored suits, wore gleaming pinkie rings and jazzed up romantic pop fare. He's an old-fashioned cosmopolitan singer-musician -- cool and elegant with a swaggering, Sinatra-inspired approach that belies his 21 years.

His latest album, On the Moon, is the more adventurous follow-up to his restrained 2003 self-titled debut.

"There are a lot of differences between the records," says Cincotti, who is calling from his home in Manhattan. The artist plays Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tomorrow through Sunday. "Basically, after my first record, I went on the road, and your music evolves a lot as you play it night after night."

On the Moon folds in various style influences: hard bop, astute Barry Manilow-like pop melodies, lite funk rhythms and some bluesy overtones here and there. With veteran producer Phil Ramone overseeing things ("He's like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to music," Cincotti says), the album retains a cohesive feel throughout.

"One of the big differences on this album is that I started writing my own songs," says the artist, who also spotlights his superior skills on the ivories with a spirited instrumental version of "Cherokee," the last track on Moon. "I wanted my songwriting to be the core of my new record. Even if the song wasn't my own, the challenge was to erase the song's history and re-create it."

His skills as a composer are best showcased on the sublimely atmospheric ballad "I'd Rather Be With You" and the ready-for-adult-pop-radio title cut. The New York native also wrote "He's Watching," a less affecting ballad with a simple spiritual message: He lives within the heavens / And he lives within my mind / And all that I can feel is the love he left behind ...

The self-penned tunes flow in the inspired, eclectic mix of jazz and pop standards of On the Moon. Cincotti dips into the Cole Porter songbook (an unusual string-accented, groove-heavy take on "I Love Paris"), the music of W.C. Handy (a funky rendition of "St. Louis Blues") and Rodgers and Hammerstein (a strutting, harmonica-spiced version of "Bali Ha'i").

"'Bali Ha'i' is a song I always knew," says the prodigious vocalist-pianist, "but I always associated it with South Pacific. But we fooled around with it in the studio and worked a different arrangement. It's one of my favorite songs on the album."

Throughout Moon, Cincotti receives tight backing from such respected musicians as tenor saxophonist Scott Kreitzer, bassist Barak Mori, drummers Mark McLean and Kenny Washington.

Cincotti says, "The first record was in more of the jazz category, although I hate to categorize music. On the new record, I wanted each song to come to life in a variety of settings."

The artist grew up on Park Avenue in New York, where his parents surrounded him with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat "King" Cole. Cincotti absorbed the music early and started taking piano lessons by age 4.

"My mother asked the teacher to let me play whatever I wanted," he says, "and not to force me to practice classical technique."

He quickly developed a melodious piano style and by age 12 was working professionally in Manhattan clubs. In 2000, when Cincotti was 17, he appeared at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival and won a prize in the piano competition for his rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." Other key gigs quickly followed, including a role in the off-Broadway hit Our Sinatra. And at 18, Cincotti became the youngest performer to headline the legendary Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. All this before Concord Records signed him to a contract and released Peter Cincotti in March 2003. The album topped Billboard's traditional jazz chart.

"The most important thing I've learned since my last album is to be yourself," Cincotti says. "And you can't be afraid to try something new. I couldn't make a record like the first because I'm not feeling the same way. The challenge is to reinvent yourself."

Check out Peter Cincotti at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., at 8 tomorrow night and Saturday night and at 3 Sunday afternoon. Tickets are $27-$75. Visit www.balti moresymphony.org.

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio at 1 p.m. Tuesdays on Live 105.7 and at 5 p.m. Thursdays on WTMD-FM 89.7.

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