The guy in the apartment downstairs just doesn’t get it. He claims to like music—plays the piano himself, in fact. But if Peter Cincotti is at the keyboard for one minute, one second, past 11 p.m., the 19-year-old jazz prodigy and Columbia sophomore hears a none-too-tuneful brrrrrring on his buzzer.
“He gives me such a hard time. I don’t understand. I mean, he’s come to one of my performances,” says Cincotti, who has a Hugh Grant–worthy forelock and a great back story, which includes Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Horace Mann. “Sometimes I get an urge to play at midnight, and I kind of sneak over to the piano. You can’t control the creative urge,” he says.
Things are more harmonious on other fronts, what with Cincotti’s upcoming monthlong engagement at the Algonquin’s Oak Room (his appearance there last year made him the youngest headliner in the cabaret mecca’s history) and Concord’s release of his self-titled debut CD. High points of the album include an adroit pairing of “Fool on the Hill” and “Nature Boy,” a driving “Spinning Wheel” à la Erroll Garner (one of Cincotti’s musical heroes), and a meltingly lovely take on “Rainbow Connection,” a Joe Raposo ballad made all the more touching for its blend of precocity and boyish yearning.
Cincotti wears his ingenuousness as easily as his French cuffs and gold pinkie ring, handed down from his grandfather and father. He can’t quite articulate his love affair with the music of a mostly distant era. Yes, these were the tunes his parents listened to, but, he insists, “you’re attracted to things just because you’re attracted to them. There’s no explanation.”
“Peter’s more comfortable with this music than he should be, which is very exciting and makes you pay attention to him,” says Gary Walker, music director and D.J. at the classic-jazz station WBGO. “We’re betting on the learning curve here. He’s 19, and look where he is already.”
Though weary by now of the age issue, Cincotti is aware enough of the calendar to hold off adding certain personal favorites to his repertoire, tunes like “I’ll Remember April,” “September of My Years,” and “The Second Time Around.” “I haven’t had the first time around,” he admits wryly, lounging on the couch in his mother’s Upper East Side home. Indeed, however ardently he croons “You Stepped out of a Dream”—in a voice that recalls Connick and the young Tony Bennett—the tender trap figures nowhere in his immediate plans. Forget those stories linking him with Jennifer Love Hewitt; theirs is just a casual friendship that began after she heard him perform. She asked for his autograph; he asked her to the Horace Mann senior prom. She declined but sent a gift basket for graduation and balloons on his birthday.
Cincotti, who began playing at age 3, is an uncanny throwback to an earlier time. He insisted on wearing a button-down shirt and tie to preschool and has yet to own a pair of jeans. He’s unfailingly gracious—no parental nagging was ever required to get the kid to clean up his act or practice piano—and he throws off complex double-fisted riffs with consummate elegance. Ambition fits in there as well: He was ready when Harry Connick Jr. invited him onstage in Atlantic City to bang out a tune—or three. Cincotti was all of 7 at the time. The connection was sealed when he was too sick to attend the singer’s show at the Village Vanguard; Cincotti’s sister, Pia, then 10, went backstage to deliver roses and a speech about her amazing kid brother. Connick made a get-well-soon call to his ailing fan, and “we sent him a tape,” says Cincotti. He was just 13 and between sets at the Red Blazer when his father, Fred, a lawyer, died of a heart attack on the club’s doorstep. “I think Peter seeing what can happen in life brought honesty and a new depth to his music,” says his mother, Cynthia. “He’s a good singer and a wonderful piano player,” says guitarist-singer John Pizzarelli, adding, “but it takes several records to find your voice. I just hope Peter has a cast-iron stomach and a hard head. He’ll have to put up with what all the knuckleheads are going to say about him—Who does he think he is, doing this music?”
There were no such skeptics in attendance a few weeks back when Cincotti played to a packed room at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. True, he was in an endless battle with his coiffure, shoving back his errant bangs with such force he seemed on course for whiplash. And yes, he looked more comfortable facing the music than the audience. “I just finished the first semester of my second year at Columbia,” Cincotti announced at one point, to ferocious clapping. “No need to applaud that,” he said embarrassedly, going on, like a slightly addled guest at a cocktail party, to talk about a recent gig in Telluride where the change in altitude gave him trouble. “I’m 19, but before I went on, I needed oxygen. I don’t know why I just told you that story.”
It’s probably a good thing that he lets his fingers do the talking.