He's only a sophomore, but it seems like graduation time for Peter Cincotti. The 19-year-old jazz singer-pianist-composer-arranger has two more years to go at Columbia University, but his career has matriculated to the big time.
He was already fitting in sets at the best jazz clubs in the country between classes, topped by becoming the youngest artist ever to perform at the Oak Room of New York's Algonquin Hotel, the cabaret world's "holy of holies."
Then last week he took it up another notch, performing with the Boston Pops in world-famous Symphony Hall (scheduled to be broadcast on PBS in July). Next Friday, he'll be at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of Steinway piano's 150th anniversary concerts, sharing the stage with jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, one of his idols. And his first CD ("Peter Cincotti" on Concord Records) has moved to No. 1 on Billboard's jazz albums chart, ahead of Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, and Diana Krall.
The idea that a teenager can interpret the great jazz standards has made for doubters; they also notice his boyish good looks and wonder if he's just stylin' or if he can really play. But those who catch him live or listen to his album are almost always won over.
Cincotti (pronounced Sin-COT-ti) is often compared to Harry Connick Jr., who helped mentor him. But People magazine enthused recently that Cincotti is already "all the singer and twice the piano player Connick is, without all the look-how-cool-I-am attitude."
Indeed, a writer thinking of adjectives to describe him after a recent interview finds "cool attitude" nowhere on his list. Instead, amiable, low-key, intelligent, level-headed, and confident come to mind.
He claims he doesn't chafe at being a teenager in a grown-up profession. "It's nice to be young," he says. "I'm in no rush to get older. I'm in a rush to develop as a person and as a musician, because they go hand in hand. But I like where I am right now."
Cincotti started playing the piano at age 3 and began lessons at 5. His first love was Jerry Lee Lewis and boogie-woogie.
"As I got older, I discovered more of what my family listened to, which was more of Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, and people like that. And then as I got a little older... I started getting into a lot of instrumental jazz."
Today, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are among his favorites. He's also listening to the mid-'60s "Live at the Plugged Nickel" recordings of Miles Davis and other jazz legends.
Nat King Cole has been a special inspiration, Cincotti says, because Cole combined extraordinary skill as both a singer and pianist.
"I try to listen to the way he sang and accompanied himself," Cincotti says, "and the [musical] lines he plays around with. His vocals are just perfect; he was really a master of blending both of those art forms together."
Growing up, Cincotti thought everyone shared his interest in jazz. It wasn't until he made friends at school that he realized most people his age weren't fans.
"I would love [it] if younger people started listening to this kind of music," he says, but "it's not really something that is my goal. If it happens, it happens, and that'd be great. I'm not going to tailor what I have to do musically so that they can somehow like it.... Whoever my fans are, are my fans."
The free form of jazz makes it the ultimate form of musical expression, Cincotti says.
"There's no experience like [playing] with other jazz musicians and kind of making a conversation out of it," he says, "because it's exactly like a language. The more vocabulary you have, the more fluent you are."
Of the dozen cuts on Cincotti's CD, three were written by him. As much as he loves the old standards, he wants to be more than an advocate for The Great American Songbook.
"I was worried about putting 'Ain't Misbehavin' on my record because it's so overdone," he says, "and how is mine going to be any different? I decided I wanted to pay homage to Fats Waller because he was such an influence [on me], and I tried to create an arrangement that was a little different."
He's careful about the songs he picks. "I will not sing certain songs that I feel disconnected to ... love songs that I feel are beyond my years like 'The Second Time Around,' when I haven't had the first time around, you know?"
That isn't always easy for him, he says, because "most of my favorite songs, my favorite albums, are all songs about lost love. But I stay away from a lot of them because I feel I want to wait until I really feel I can interpret that song and do something with it."
Still, he's not apologetic about writing or singing love songs that he's comfortable with. "I wrote 'Are You the One?' It's about questioning love," he says.
With a concert schedule ahead that includes opening for Ray Charles at the Montreal Jazz Festival and trips to Europe and Japan, Cincotti isn't sure he'll be able to return to Columbia next fall, though he says he's committed to getting his degree.
Taking classes in literature and philosophy already has broadened his horizons, he says.
"You don't learn music by just studying music. As you grow as a person, as you learn about things that affect you. Your music changes, and the way you approach your instrument changes. If you read something by Plato that affects you in a certain way, suddenly you'll grow."
• To hear samples of Peter Cincotti's CD and view his tour schedule, go to www.concordrecords.com