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.