Peter Cincotti: Revelations Abound
“ I didn't want conventional topics to be the goal here. I wanted to write about something that meant something to me. ”
Don't think for one minute Peter Cincotti is just another handsome face combined with a captivating voice. Or merely the latest in a string of mellifluous musicians reaching for a fusion of soul, pop and jazz (though he did attract the attention of Harry Connick Jr. early in his careerforestalling the competition perhaps?).
Cincotti is attempting the altogether difficult task of dissecting human emotion through music, the significance of which ambition may seem less than a distinctive mission until you hear him. He is chameleonic, to say the least.
After two well-recognized albums for Concord, the New York native Cincotti moved, at least symbolically, to the left coast and his music moved similarly, in a more pop-oriented direction encouraged further by the collaboration on his third album with David Foster, one of the genre's modern masters. Equally earthy and cerebral, and narrowly but emphatically skirting sentimentality, East of Angel Town (Warner Brothers/Sire, 2009) finds the pianist/vocalist performing all-original material, after the previously-released amalgamations of standards and self-penned songs.
Self aware and practically as self-sufficient after his mentoring from pianist Ellis Marsalis, Cincotti has no illusions about himself or his music, and that disarming attitude makes writing, recording and performing, as well as conversations, deceptively winning.
All About Jazz: Let's talk a bit about your new recording and, actually, the span of your recordings. Your first two albums were on Concord and the third is on the Warner label. Was that planned in terms of a creative philosophy and a natural progression?
Peter Cincotti: It was a natural progression. Concord is a great label and good for the records I put out upwards of five years ago now. Then I started writing a lot more and that's when we made the deal with Warner Brothers. Each record is different to me in that it's my own, but this is the first one of all my own material, so in a sense it's a debut. It certainly feels like that.
AAJ: That must be a pretty nice sensation to feel like you're starting over again... more on your own terms perhaps?
PC: It's a great feeling. All my records are personal in that way, but there's nothing like writing your own stuff.
AAJ: Did you have all the material written when you started recording?
PC: I had about two-thirds of it written I'd say. We went into the studio and basically recorded everything I had and then David Foster (the producer of East of Angel Town) said, "All right, let's split up for a month and you write the rest of it, then we'll come back." So about a third of the record was written for the record, so to speak, and then the first two thirds was accumulated over the two years prior, on tour, writing at home or wherever it might be.
AAJ: I wanted to ask something about the initial batch of material: as you wrote it or looked at it preparing to record, did you notice a theme to it that gave it some continuity or did you have to impart some to it?
PC: The continuity to it to me was that it all be in my voice. They all had to be songs that came from me. That's a tough thing to determine, but I know what I didn't want more than what I wanted. I didn't want conventional topics to be the goal here. I wanted to write about something that meant something to me. At that point, nobody really knew so it was a chance to put those thoughts into music and I think as a result the songs have atypical subject matter.
AAJ: Listening to East of Angel Town, it sounds very natural and very personal to your voice.
PC: You gotta respect whatever that is inside you. When you start singing something, you know when you don't mean it. I was just very sensitive to that: the minute something didn't feel right, I wouldn't want to do it.
AAJ: That comes across.
PC: Thanks for saying that because sometimes it doesn't.
AAJ: Was there a distinct difference in the second batch of songs that effectively completed the album?
PC: I don't think so. Of course, if I sat down to think about it, I could figure out what songs came first, but now I think they blend in together pretty well. I don't think it's all that apparent to any listener either. But that's kind of interesting and a challenge because it's kind of like writing with another purpose other than yourself. Like "December Boys," I wrote for the movie of the same name and it's the only song that started out as an assignment. It was my first time wearing that hat, writing for a purpose other than writing for the sake of writing itself, and I enjoyed that. It kind of ended up fitting into the theme of the rest of the songs and we kept it on the record.
AAJ: You said you enjoyed it, but did you find moreor lessdifficult in any way to write on assignment?
PC: In some ways, it was more difficult, but in others it was easier because you have limitations. Limitations can be very helpful for someone like me; when you write and there's nothing on the page, there's just endless possibilities and that wasn't the case with "December Boys."
AAJ: You've got to focus otherwise you don't want to shut off too much when you're writing your own songs. One of the best lines in your lyrics leaped out at me: "...all the Tarzans acting like Janes..." I thought was out of this world. Where did that come from?
PC: That's the song "Be Careful," and that one, compared to the rest of them, took awhile to write. That was one of the ones I wrote with [lyricist] John Bettis. We had the first verse and I knew what I wanted the song to be about and then I went out with this girl I'd never met; this was very serendipitous because the whole night became the first verse and it pushed the song into overdrive and we finished the song pretty easily.
AAJ: That's enough to make anyone look very carefully at your lyrics and wonder where all this stuff comes from. Let's move on to talk about how the songs were actually recorded. Were there any of the songs in either batch that changed markedly from when you thought they were finished to when the recording was actually finished? For instance, did a ballad turn out upbeat or vice-versa?
PC: No, nothing as drastic as that. Nothing actually became a different song. I like to complete songs something like eighty percent and then leave twenty percent for what happens in the studio. And that twenty percent was really taken advantage of by David [Foster], of course, and Jochem van der Saag, of course, who's one of the producers. He did all the sound design and did all the mixing. Songs like "Angel Town," when we went into the studio and recorded it, then it really went to its full potential, because it was written on the piano alone and it really took on a complete life of its own. It wasn't a different life, but it had everything it needed. A lot of that happened in the studio, but nothing really changed drastically.
AAJ: Let's talk about the arrangements for this material. Did you have really clear-cut ideas about how you wanted to present these songs?
PC: Yes, very much and all of that was done before the studio. A bunch of the songs were kind of worn in on the road before we hit the recording of the stuff. Performing [new material] is part of my process when I write; the arrangement goes hand in hand with that.
AAJ: What kind of lineup do you take out on the road with you when you perform?
PC: Usually it's me plus five: bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and saxophone. Sometimes we slim it down a bit depending on the occasion, but that's the full band.
AAJ: How did you come to work with David Foster? Did Warner Bros. set that up or you ask to work with him given his pedigree and his resume?
PC: No, he was one of the first to hear a lot of these new songs. He came to a benefit in Los Angeles and at that time I was really looking at all of the producers because I really wanted to make sure I found the right one. As much as I respected David Foster, you can't really know if it's the right match until you go and do it, so I wasn't about to go and make a decision based on a resume, as much as I respected it.
He was great. He said "Why don't we do one song and we'll see how it goes." He was very excited to do this and I was honored he was excited. We ended up doing eleven songs in three days; it was one of those things that really clicked. Things moved very quickly; we did all the basic recoding in New York and then I did a lot of the postproduction in Los Angeles.
AAJ: I notice looking at the credits some famous names and I wondered how much your band was part of the whole project.
PC: My core band, the bassist and the drummer, were on pretty much everything. And then we had a lot of David's guys come in to play extra parts; at that time I didn't have my guitarist or a full band yet, so we had a mix with my core band in there.
AAJ: I bet that added a lot of stability as people like Michael Landua (guitarist) and Nathan East (bassist) wove in and out. What was it like working with those guys? Did David more or less navigate everyone through the sessions or did you sit at the helm with him? Or did you just call the shots and he took orders from you?
PC: No, [laughs], it was very much the both of us at the helm and that's what made it special. There were really no compromises. Each of us heard the other out. He pushed me when I needed to be pushed and he left me alone when I needed to be left alone. He was very sensitive to that and we had some great back and forth. That's what I think gave the record the great spark that it has. He kept saying "Compromise breeds mediocrity!"
AAJ: Were there any points during the recording that you guys were at loggerheads?
PC: No not to me, I couldn't imagine a better match to be honest.
AAJ: It'd seem like you'd waste a lot of time in the recoding studio if you couldn't cut right to the chase.
PC: We had a head start in a lot of ways. I knew exactly what I wanted and he's such an incredible musician, I feel like we ended up skipping a lot of steps. If I had a question about whether I ought to play an F-sharp or a G, you could shoot right back and do it. That's the kind of producer that he is, he could go right down and play the song right after you. There are many different styles [of producer] but he's one of those.
AAJ: I've heard it said it's such a great virtue to have a musician be your producer because you don't have to translate a lot of stuff. You can just play it or if you say it, they know exactly what you mean.
PC: We skipped a lot of conversation!
AAJ: Well you weren't there to record conversation! What kind of music do you like to listen to just for the pleasure of it? What kinds of artists and songs influence you, just recently or at the fundamental level of being a performer?
PC: All kinds of stuff, I go through a lot of eclectic stuff; I was just recently listening to Reba McEntire's Greatest Hits (MCA, 1987), but I can go to Eminem stuff or to Broadway soundtrack stuff from the '50s.
AAJ: I often go off on jags when I will listen to the same artist or the same kind of stuff for a week or ten days at a time. Does that happen to you?
PC: It does when something really hits me. I love when that happens; when something gets under my skin. As I get older, I find that less stuff does get under my skin, but when it does happen, I go through that exact same phase.
AAJ: Ever rediscover an artist you remember really liking and you listen to them again and go "Boy, I just heard them a whole different way!"
PC: The best artists do that, their music doesn't get old.
Peter Cincotti, East of Angel Town (Warner Bros./Sire, 2009)
Peter Cincotti, Goodbye Philadelphia EP (WEA, 2007)
Peter Cincotti, Live in New York DVD (Concord, 2006)
Peter Cincotti, On the Moon (Concord, 2004)
Peter Cincotti, My Favorite Time of Year EP (Concord, 2004)
Peter Cincotti, Peter Cincotti (Concord, 2003)