When most kids his age were settling into college life, Peter Cincotti was already a seasoned pro on the New York jazz circuit. He had made a splash at the 2000 Montreux Jazz Festival, had played prestigious rooms in the Big Apple and Atlantic City, N.J., and had shared the stage with his mentor, Harry Connick Jr.
At 19, Cincotti topped Billboard's traditional jazz charts with his 2002 self-titled debut, becoming the youngest artist to do so. Now, three years after his tentative sophomore effort, On the Moon, Cincotti steps out of the tuxedo-and-evening gown realm of jazz standards and snazzy crooning and plunges headfirst into the aggressive world of pop-rock.
East of Angel Town, the native New Yorker's first release for Warner Bros. Records, hit stores this week.
"This album, in a lot of ways, feels like a debut," says Cincotti, who headlines Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis tonight. "It's all original music, which is the fundamental difference this time. I didn't go into it wanting to make a pop record. It kinda happened."
To help him with his maiden crossover effort, Cincotti went to the ideal guy: producer David Foster. Over the past two decades, the 14-time Grammy winner has overseen across-the-board smashes for Cher, Celine Dion, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and others. Most recently, he braided style strains on hit albums for Michael Buble and Josh Groban.
"David was the first to get the vision for the songs," says Cincotti, who was at home in New York City last week. "He knew when to push me and when to leave me alone. The process was a healthy one."
But whereas other artists Foster produced kept one foot firmly planted in their respective genres, Cincotti charts new musical territory on East of Angel Town. The laid-back, Connick-influenced vocal phrasing heard on his first two albums has been supplanted by a bolder, theatrical style, which fits the music.
The artist's pop tastes have been clear from the start: Peter Cincotti featured bright interpretations of the Beatles and Blood, Sweat & Tears, while On the Moon revealed glimmering influences of Sting and Barry Manilow. Although Cincotti's penchant for bluesy melodies still underpins his songs, the musical direction is much edgier this time.
"The approach changed with the writing," he says. "I was going for notes that weren't in my range, so I was writing around them. I ended up singing what I wrote and that changed the way I sing."
Cincotti started writing new songs in earnest while touring behind On the Moon. The witty, journalistic cuts on East of Angel Town recall vintage Steely Dan and The Stranger-era Billy Joel. Cincotti's eye for detail is particularly crisp on "Angel Town": Mazy checks her cell phone for the 32nd time/Slips into her Jimmy Choo's/Perfect pink three-quarter skirt and lilac leather purse/She's a page from W."
As he sings of superficial lives, broken dreams and love's afterglow, Cincotti is specific about scenery.
"There are a lot of location references in the record," says the artist, 25. "The title kinda summed it up. The location just colored the songs. The specifics lend themselves to the bigger themes of the songs."
Cincotti is most impressive when he's crooning ballads. The jazz-kissed "Man on a Mission" is a warm standout, and "Lay Your Body Down (Goodbye Philadelphia)" is a climactic ballad worthy of Elton John. But as the lyrics look to soft-rock's past for inspiration, the music is thoroughly modern, glossy and sprawling. Rock guitar screams on the urbane up-tempo cuts, and Cincotti's percussive piano anchors the ballads and midtempo numbers. The styles and colors vary throughout East of Angel Town. The album tends to meander, especially toward the end. But Cincotti always sounds comfortable in the new musical settings.
With his classic matinee-idol looks and new edgy sound, he seems poised for pop stardom. But the artist maintains a jazz man's attitude: It's all the music.
"I'm just gonna keep doing the music. The way it gets out there and the way it gets promoted - that's Warner Bros.' job," Cincotti says. "My job is to write and sing and hopefully everything else is in line with that."
if you go
See Peter Cincotti at 8 tonight at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $35. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.