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Peter Cincotti - Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre on 1 March 2004
I am not sure what possessed me on this occasion to book to see someone of whom I had never heard, but my whim was well rewarded. My expectations of seeing the novelty of a 20-year-old youngster singing and playing some elementary jazz piano quickly turned into a step back in time to the golden days of jazz, a rewarding revelation. I watched a charming man in an impeccable suit that matched his impeccable timing skilfully command a band of enormously talented musicians with maturity well beyond his years, delivering impressively improvised solos on the piano throughout a delightfully entertaining set.
I owe my enlightenment to a picture. I was flicking through the Evening Standard’s listings magazine Metro when a photograph on the jazz music page, which I had planned to pass by, caught my eye. The picture seemed to be of a young man from another age. I felt like I was looking at the missing member of the original Rat Pack, but the warm glow of the photograph made it clear this was a modern picture of a modern man with a soul out of his time. He had enormous appeal, wearing a silver silk tie loosened about his neck as though he’d just finished a committed performance, a pressed and pristine white shirt under a classy, dark tailored suit jacket. The fresh-faced young man with a long, elegant nose was looking down, oozing an ease that comes with confidence but with no trace of PrimaDonna-osity. His hair was cut in that lovely floppy-fringed style that went out in the ‘30s until Four Weddings and a Funeral accidentally revived it when Hugh Grant’s character was given an outdated haircut in a failed attempt to make him look less attractive to the audience.
This photograph alone drew me into the world of Peter Cincotti, a ‘slim New Yorker…being larged-up as a rising star, a singer-songwriter and pianist of "new Sinatra" potential. Though taller and more laid-back than his 24-year-old British rival [Jamie Cullum], Cincotti is still only 20. He’s been at it longer, though,’ Jack Massarik wrote in the magazine, before revealing that Cincotti has been a piano wonder since the age of 7.
Despite his apparent ongoing ascent to greatness, I had heard nothing of Cincotti, as the market is now flooded with so many of the often over-exposed young jazz singers and pianists that I have stubbornly ignored them since Harry Connick, Jr—often referred to as Cincotti’s mentor—first burst onto the scene. So I had buried my head in the sand and missed the Cincotti boat, although frankly, so has this whole country. Or more accurately, his ship hasn’t yet reached these shores.
What finally made me decide to see Cincotti on St David’s Day without having heard his work was the fact that he had been cast in Kevin Spacey’s forthcoming Bobby Darin biopic. I fully expect to love the film, and I knew I would kick myself to the ground afterwards when I thought about how I had had the opportunity to see Cincotti perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a capacity of just under 900 for about £20, when soon he will surely be playing arenas with a capacity of 3,000 with tickets costing £50. Plus there was one aisle seat left with my name on it, so I booked it and picked up a copy of his album for some preparatory homework.
Although I had drawn complete blanks when I told friends I would be seeing someone whose surname I had pronounced a bit like ‘chinchilla’—but should be pronounced ‘sin-COT-tea’, The Word had clearly spread amongst many because the hall was full, probably thanks to a recent appearance on Parkinson that I had sadly (of course) missed. A significant number of seats were occupied by people who might have seen Fats Waller perform in their youth, who may have been there to pretend they were seeing a young Frank Sinatra before he became a paunchy, slightly menacing, Vegas-style standards pusher. I initially thought Cincotti also had an odd attraction for the numerous Rambler and twitcher types I’d seen in the foyer but then found they were there to hear a National Trust lecture in the neighbouring Purcell Room. Also in the foyer were packs of hungry young women—though not young enough to tempt the man who asked actress Jennifer Love Hewitt to his high school prom—poured into much tighter trousers than usually spotted at the artsy South Bank Centre, and glammed up as though heading for a night-club or Bingo down the high street. I eventually also realised that almost everyone in the audience was white, although I couldn’t say whether that was a particular characteristic of Peter’s audience or just a typical jazz audience.
I took my place amongst them after shooing a kind, large Italian salt-of-the-earth middle-aged man out of my seat and into the one beside me. The stench that hung on this obvious chain smoker helped create in this non-smoking venue the smoky beat club atmosphere that one might expect when seeing a jazz act decades ago. A fair distance in front of us (since I’d booked at the last minute) was a giant black stage with an impressive shiny grand piano to the left that would show us the right profile of the pianist, to its right a redwood stand-up bass lying on its side as though recently slain, and to its right, a measly black and silver jazz drum set that resembled a kid’s starter kit, but was full of cymbals and hi-hats.
Shortly after a pack of typically power-hungry OAP ushers ordered me to place my briefcase so that rather than dangerously taking up four inches of the six-foot wide aisle beside my seat, it instead completely blocked the escape route of the 20 people in my aisle, the lights went down and Peter’s three accompanists took the stage in silence. Actually, it is unfair to call them accompanists as they turned out to be such remarkable talents, clearly impressing even Peter himself, that I quickly realised that I was there to see an enormously slick jazz band rather than an idol and his anonymous backers.
Moments after the advertised start time—I like a man who respects his audience enough not to keep them waiting—the bass player, Barak Mori, and drummer, Mark McLean, began playing as Scott Kreitzer, who plays on Cincotti’s album, stood silently holding his tenor sax. All three were in black suits, black shirts and black ties, but not one of them could possibly fade into the background—and there was a lot of background, as the bulk of the huge black stage loomed behind them. Unusually, Peter was announced, and rather enthusiastically at that, lending an additional fifties feel to the evening. After we were told this was Peter’s first UK concert, he strolled onto and across the stage, tall but not awkwardly so, sure of his step, dressed just as he had been in the photograph that had caught my eye: extremely smart dark suit, immaculate white shirt, silver woven tie (but knotted properly now). Rather than just floppy fringe in his hair, much of the loose front length extended towards his ears in a style frequently worn by actor Fisher Stevens. His mane was so shiny he looked like a Prell advert.
Although he crossed without care to the grand piano, he did not take a seat but instead picked up a mike and took a few steps back towards his band as he began singing an updated, booming version of St Louis Woman. After the first chorus, he sat at the piano and began playing as he seamlessly continued singing, ably supported by his remarkable band. Barak Mori looked like someone who might play the unknowing geek called Eugene in a film like Animal House, but was in his element here, with his spectacularly speedy fingers providing a steady rhythm that kept the show on track all evening. He was taller than his double bass, also incredibly young, with short, dark curly hair, his soft face interrupted by small spectacles. Like the others, Mori was a man of eminent talent in the jazz world; he has recorded with artists such as jazz saxophonist Carolyn Breuer (daughter of trombonist Hermann) and pianist Eric Reed.
Although Cincotti had a silkily smooth and capable voice, he really elevated to sainthood when his fingers took centre stage, as during his first piano solo. He had the habit of leaning over the keys, particularly when he played in the upper register, as though he were self-taught and carefully watching to ensure he hit the right notes, but he is probably just so moved by his power, as we all are, that he likes to keep it in check.
Next came a fantastic, moving saxophone solo by the enormously talented tall, dark and curly-haired Brooklyn-born Florida-grown Scott Kreitzer, who was clearly the eldest there and slightly more substantial in physical stature, not to mention absolutely oozing experience. A songwriter and arranger himself, he has played with Spyro Gyra, Billy Joel, David Lee Roth, Jon Bon Jovi, and Cincotti favourites Blood, Sweat and Tears (whose hit Spinning Wheel is interpreted almost as a Scott Joplin-style piano instrumental on Cincotti’s debut album), as well as Cincotti’s producer Phil Ramone. Just as Peter played with one of his modern idols when he was a child (he joined Harry Connick, Jr, on stage at the age of seven), Kreitzer was playing with jazz legend Ira Sullivan whilst still in school before studying under many other greats. He occasionally plays in the pit on Broadway and has released albums of his own, as well as playing on Rod Stewart’s second album of standards, also produced by Ramone. Now he knows what it’s like to perform with a truly capable singer of standards….
As Kreitzer practically flew off the stage with the heights of his solo, Peter’s face burst into a charming smile that showed he enjoyed the fruits of Kreitzer’s ability as much as the audience. Throughout the evening, aided by clear and even sound mixing, Peter managed to balance his star turns with taking a back seat when it was time for the other three to shine in their solos. That in itself won me over, proving we were not dealing with a precocious youngster who was determined to soak up all the limelight in order to boost his ego and further his career. He was one of four players and seemed proud to make that simple claim. There was no hint that he felt the others were there to prop up his pedestal; instead, he gave the clear impression that he knew he could learn from these other talents, and their tightly knit, well-rehearsed, sleek delivery astounded us all evening.
As Peter’s light baritone regaled us again, triumphing with any higher notes that came its way, he began to glance over the audience a bit, which is always a brave move. Still, he is a seasoned performer and, in any case, he was probably looking at a vast expanse of darkness from where he sat. When he wound up the sharp delivery of this revamped classic, he was greeted with enthusiastic, voluminous applause from an extremely gratified and dazzled audience.
Without a word, Peter’s fingers burst into the familiar introduction of the fantastic standard Miss Brown (usually known as Miss Brown To You, an old classic covered even by Billie Holiday), which suits his silken, gently crooning voice and technique perfectly. As he delivered the line, ‘Don’t you all get too familiar,’ he turned to the audience with a smile as if giving them a teasing instruction. Kreitzer, who could have been mistaken for the front man as the staging put him front and centre, were it not for the stature of the piano player off to the side, deigned to deliver another warm and lyrical solo on the sax as Mori and McLean tricked us into thinking that maintaining a jazz rhythm so flawlessly was easy. Kreitzer’s solo understandably earned applause upon its finish, even though that drowned out Peter’s voice when he first resumed singing the lyrics, and that happened throughout the evening but Peter was never visibly fazed by that. When not smiling at his partners in chime, he would sometimes remove his magic hands from the keys just long enough to push his flowing locks off his face, and later in this number, he treated us to another solo. His skills as a pianist were truly outstanding, but never overpowering; he knew how to play subtly and was professional enough to know the advantages of quiet moments and never seeking to be the centre of attention. Not that he had to go looking for that spot; it came naturally. Peter could play an incredibly quick succession of notes; if Dudley Moore were still with us, I might suspect that the smaller man were tucked behind the piano offering a few extra hidden helping hands. Growing in confidence, Peter blasted out the last few lines of the eminently catchy and truly terrific song.
Peter then picked up a mike and stood near the piano. I was amused to see that, rather than the cordless type that everyone else seemed to use these days, this mike had a long lead attached to it, which required Peter to manoeuvre around it with both hands, just the way a jazz singer of yesteryear would need to do. I wondered if that were a deliberate choice. No new technology such as radio packs here; we had stepped back in time. Peter chatted to us with confidence beyond his years, but his youth was revealed by his lack of life-long antidotes. Whilst his patter was not as vibrant or hilarious as I was used to, he is disadvantaged as he cannot claim to have decades of performances behind him supplying a hundred stories based on many tours and myriad experiences. Not yet. With his limited material, this young man sensibly spoke about issues with which he was familiar: living in New York, being a student at Columbia University, and—as you do—starring in a Kevin Spacey film.
He began this first chat with us by stressing his happiness to be on his first major tour in the UK, which he did with sincerity rather than spewing out laminated platitudes where he filled in the blank with the current town’s name. He spoke of his experiences touring, which took this Manhattan native to many places for the first time, and people assumed that touring enabled him to see the world. Instead, he explained, what he saw was a lot of different dressing rooms, stages and hotel rooms. This patter was nothing original, but he said it with such convincing charm and, somehow, innocence with stamina, that he won over the audience, who laughed at almost anything he delivered. He had learned a lot on tour, he said: how to pack and unpack in fewer than 30 seconds, how to shower and get to the airport whilst still asleep. He missed home wherever he went and had enjoyed having two days off in New York recently, when he was able to see his family.
He shared a story about returning home. New York airports, he said, left arrivals with two choices in terms of getting into the city. One was to join a queue of 4,000 people for a legal yellow cab. The other was to accept the offer of one of those strangers who walks up to you and says, (Cincotti imitated a cabbie with an unspecified foreign accent), ‘Would you like a taxi? Sixty dollar’—sounding a bit, if I am honest, like Bloody Mary from South Pacific, but then maybe she’s driving cabs these days. He delightfully told of being so exhausted that he choose the latter (Bloody Mary) option and was being driven home when it started to dawn on him….I thought he would say that he’d just realised that he was dangerously at the mercy of a total stranger, but instead, being a typical young man undoubtedly thinking he’s invincible, he said it dawned on him that sixty dollars was a lot of money. So they pulled up to his apartment building and Peter went up to Steve the Doorman (presumably the son of Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda). ‘For those of you who live in houses and might not be familiar with the role of the doorman, let me explain it to you,’ Peter obliged. ‘He opens the door, and once you’ve walked through it, he closes the door.’ The audience was pretty much sold on Peter’s comedian skills with his delivery of that one. When Peter asked Steve the Doorman how much the fare from the airport should be and learned that forty dollars was more appropriate, before he had a chance to consider his next move, Steve the D was shouting at the illegal taxi driver in typical New Yorker style à la ‘Where do you get sixty dollars!?!’ We left them there as Peter came up with the smooth link of, ‘now the song I recently wrote…has nothing to do with that story. It’s called The Girl for Me Tonight.’
Peter sat at the piano and began his satiny singing, with only his playing for accompaniment. Soon Barak got busy on the bass, Mark started brushing some cymbals as Scott delivered quick bursts of sax from time to time, and all four started swinging to the swirling beat, which at times resembled a wind storm before repeatedly slowing. The song’s mix of tempos was impressive, Peter’s voice was strong and the intermittent dark injections of deeper chords were interesting. Peter’s piano solo and the composition was outstanding. However, some of the rhymes were almost irksomely simple—but then as his mother wrote the lyrics (aw, bless) of the original songs on his album, he must be incredibly new at doing so himself, so naturally he would fall into the usual newcomer traps, the same way that most people learn Chopsticks on the piano before moving on to Rachmaninov. So I should not really criticise trite phrases such as ‘temptation starts to burn’.
Mainly, I tried hard not to be irritated by the chauvinistic element of the song about a man making his one-night stand justify her suitability for that despicably low role, having to prove ‘that you want me even more so before I close the door, are you the girl for me tonight,’ and passing that off as romance suitable for a crooning number. But, I told myself, the song was not necessarily autobiographical, and hey, he was a very young man on tour who was growing in fame and clearly had a large female following. Who in that position has not been tempted to behave in that way or at least consider it? He’s certainly known for being incredibly handsome. I had seen photos, obviously, but was far enough away that it was difficult to get a true sense of his facial features, though he looked sharp, I grant you that. However, there was little chance of me even thinking about fancying him lest I be placed on some police register. I am pushing 40, after all. But he’s got the world at his feet I wish him well with it. As a composer and pianist, I can confirm that he’s supreme, and I enjoyed that element of this song, which got a warm reception from the audience—but only after we saw his left hand creep down to the floor and grab his bottle of water, as he always seemed unstoppable and often teased us with false endings, so we often had to search for some indication that he had actually finished the song.
Next, Peter introduced his band members individually and with an admirable pride, and each got a sizeable amount of applause from the marvelling audience. Peter then rushed into a quick, deliberately disjointed introduction on the piano, quickly joined by Barak and Mark. They played a marvellous instrumental number that had moments of classic jazz brilliance mixed with occasional piano parts that sounded like part of a nursery rhyme, sort of Ring Around the Rosie meets All About Rosie. I am afraid that I was not able to recognise it, particularly with my limited knowledge of jazz. From memory, it had similarities with Sal’s Blues, the bonus instrumental track on Peter’s album, such as the intermittent drum solos that change tempo, which it might have been. However, Peter was not sticking to the few songs he had recorded on his year-old self-titled Concord Records album, only recently released in this country, and he has been known to perform other instrumental jazz standards such as They’ll Never Be Another You and Night in Tunisia, for which he won an award for his arrangement at the 2000 Montreaux Jazz Festival. Although I have heard the latter piece before, it would normally be a big band recording with trumpets and a huge sound delivering a pure eastern feel. It might be that Peter’s interpretation of the classic was so different that I did not recognise it, so bear in mind that this tune was his own version of Night in Tunisia—although I think it might have been played later in the set. In any case, we were treated to some masterful playing by Peter, some unbelievably glittering sax blasting, with Scott’s fingers moving so quickly they must have ached, and an impressively quick-fire solo on the bass by Barak (which Peter seemed to pronounce as ‘baroque’). As in Sal’s Blues, Mark was given different chances to have some quick solos on the drums at different tempos, all of which he handled expertly as he can clearly lend his hands to any rhythm or genre required.
Whenever his companions’ solos were wowing the audience, which applauded heartily after each one, particularly Kreitzer’s fantasias on sax, Peter would tone down his piano to merely a percussion instrument, with quiet punctuation added in the form of a few delicate occasional background notes, before turning to pounding chords and injecting a racing solo or two when the focus turned to him. As he played, he continued to bend over to watch his hands, rocking back and forth at times, and as the others played, he would gaze at them with a huge smile on his face, enjoying their output as much as the rest of us. That persistent, modest behaviour and appreciation for the talent around him made me think Peter was a bit of a saint as well as a paragon of professionalism. He was also a miracle worker, because here I was, a self-confessed jazz hater who only really liked tidy, focused three-minute songs with lyrics and catchy refrains, now sitting there loving each of the eight minutes or so of instrumental jazz being doled out. Oh, I’ve always enjoyed big bands, swing and Dixieland jazz, but modern jazz, that, wandering, endless, freestyle, aimless clatter, is something I cannot bear. It makes no sense to my over-structured brain. Yet here the lengthy improvisations took control of my tapping foot and rendered me powerless to do anything but join Peter in his beaming.
The band gave the mystery tune a big finish that led to the audience not just pounding their hands together hard enough for people north of the river to hear us, but cheering as well, which is unusual so early in the evening for the stuffy South Bank Centre. The Briefcase Police, who were also preventing photography, must have been shocked.
As Scott took his sax off stage for a much needed cooling down, Peter moved immediately into the sleepy opening rhythm of Sway, the highlight of his debut album. Interestingly, another of the new crop of young jazz singers, Canadian Michael Bublé, has also recorded the Gimbel/Ruiz classic song, but surely nothing could be as heart-stoppingly fantastic as Peter’s steamy treatment of the classic, which he has transformed into his own. Peter apparently developed his version of this song based upon sheet music before ever having heard anyone else play it, which perhaps is why this song has such an original approach.
Soothingly singing the first lines, ‘When marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway,’ his voice did him proud. It was magnificently electric and stunningly clear as it permeated the atmosphere in the hall, gaining in momentum until bursting with beauty each time he reached the pinnacle, ‘When we sway I grow weak’. His voice and piano deftly portrayed the passion required for this incredible number, with Mori and McLean aptly providing the jazzy rhythm to Peter’s champion piano with dips into a Latin feel. On this song more than any other, Peter expressed his character vocally, clutching onto some words and letting go reluctantly rather than simply churning out the lyrics mechanically. Smoothly crooning to leave them swooning, Peter’s vocals were fuller and faultless, stronger than on his album and not at all reedy. The track is a remarkably forceful demonstration of his enormous potential. Anyone who feels his vocal interpretations of songs fall a bit flat or lack a signature sound that one would expect from someone of his ability can rest assured that he is learning the tools required and will get there soon enough.
Here he also remembered to play to weaken the audience, turning to them to sing some of the more romantic lines, appearing to glance at individual faces as though looking deep into the eyes of lucky females and delivering the words straight to their hearts. However, whilst the stage was appropriately lit in blue—putting one in mind of Blue Note and also giving a soothing feel of jazz in a cavern club rather than in a cavernous hall—the fact remains that we were just a bunch of blobby protrusions in the deepest darkness to Peter. Still, there’s no harm in mesmerising your audience using any method available, though the music would have accomplished as much on its own.
The song ended with a long instrumental stint, with Mark punctuating each measure with a whack of a wood block that sounded like rhythmic gun shots amongst the mass of brushed cymbals. Peter studied his fingers on the keys, his floppy hair seeming to dance as he bounced quite a bit during his masterful solo, rocking side to side somewhat stiffly but with terrific energy. The three musicians allowed their playing to fade away slowly, pausing occasionally to create gaps just long enough to trick the audience to raising their hands preparing to applaud, but starting to play again before we actually pounded them together, forcing several hundred people to scratch their wrists and make other gestures to look as though they had not been caught out. Peter conducted the other two musicians with nods of his head through several closing notes to a smooth, precise conclusion.
As the audience roared in their trance-like state brought on by the hypnotic mood of the previous number, Peter had another sip of water, although he is old enough to drink something harder in the UK, unlike at home. He stood, shared a quick joke with the bassist as Scott Kreitzer returned with his magic sax, and smoothly walked to the far end of the stage, where he began singing a song covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and even Joni Mitchell, Comes Love, which thankfully appears on his album. With the first sleepy lines, the lighting suddenly brightened as though the sun had come out, with red and yellow joining blue to warm the stage. The new light revealed what looked like a fainted fan lying on the floor near Peter’s piano, but I suspect it was only a substantial cover for the double bass, though a fainted fan would have surprised no one.
Peter’s gentle strolling about the stage as he cooed the lyrics into the mike, his hands busying with co-ordinating the mike and its lead, made him look more like a young Sinatra figure than ever before. When Kreitzer treated us to another emotive sax solo, Peter retreated to the piano and played a bit of subtle rhythm, ensuring Kreitzer remained the main focus. Frankly, Kreitzer would have been the main focus if Sinatra himself were on stage, as he was reaching notes that were in danger of having every dog in the city descending upon the hall, and he held them out for so long I began to suspect he wasn’t human. When he finished, Peter leaned forward to continue singing into his mike, and, like a schoolboy, caused his stool to perch precariously only on its front two legs, but fortunately he was masterfully in control even of that and never met with disaster or the embarrassment of a collapse. As he sang the last verse, ‘Comes a nightmare,’ he looked out at us, but I knew not to take offence and could also be confident that he didn’t see performing his first big gig in the UK to be anything remotely scary. He was in his element and we loved being there with him, enjoying this outstanding delivery of another standard.
Using both hands to push his hair back off his face again, Peter moved instantly into the next number, which initially featured just his vocals and piano. The song was country standard You Don’t Know Me, recently recorded by Peter’s mentor, Harry Connick, Jr (appearing these days as Grace’s husband in Will and Grace). On his album, Peter’s voice is frequently reminiscent of Connick’s style, but—fortunately, as he deserves to be recognised for his unique talent—he sounds less like Connick when performing live. This marvellous heart-tugging song tells of someone who dreams of being more to his friend and watches her walk off with another man. Peter injected into it all the charm of yesteryear, disguising it as another classic from decades before, designed as a beautiful aural portrait. The rhythm players joined in from the second verse and Scott eventually unleashed another fine solo on the sax, during which Peter leaned over his piano keys so much, it was as though he had slumped into slumber, but he must just have been enjoying the mood. The musical arrangement had almost a country waltz feel to it, but the smooth crooning with a bit of Blue Moon sentimentality and swing jazz instrumentals kept us in the right genre. Peter knew just how to play it—not just literally with his stupefying piano skills—but in terms of tweaking the heartstrings of the women in the audience. He would turn to them with a doe-eyed look as he splendidly sang, ‘Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by / the chance that you might love me, too.’ The song truly suited Peter’s voice, which would have shot down his critics with its bold timbre and pure strength on this number.
As we applauded, Peter stood and moved centre stage with the mike to have a chat with us. I still worried that his patter wouldn’t impress the sophisticated and much more mature South Bank Centre audience, but his youth and natural conversation was so charming, he had them eating out of his enormously talented piano-playing hand. He said nothing groundbreaking or particularly hilarious, but he kept the audience highly amused, mainly owing to his delivery and the fact that the audience felt a fondness for him as soon as he hit the stage. He stuck to subjects he knew—procrastinating when a paper was due at University, touring and coping with jet lag—nothing beyond his years, everything natural and delightful.
‘I’d like to tell you how I wrote this next song,’ he began. He explained that he was a student at Columbia University (for those of you in the UK, attending that school means he’s no dummy). ‘Right now, I’m on a leave of absence,’ he said with a wry smile that had the audience chuckling. A few years ago, he said, he had a term paper due that required about a month to prepare. He had one day left to start it, and he was walking to the library, feeling quite overwhelmed, when he found himself in the music room writing this next tune rather than the term paper (which, I am sure it is fair to say, will contribute more to society in the long term, despite being naughty). He beamed as he told us the song’s fitting title, I Changed the Rules, which is the first track off his album. ‘I didn’t get any credit, either,’ he muttered before launching into the song, not returning to the piano until after the first verse.
‘I’m not some cat that you ignore’ was delivered with such tight diction that it had me thinking of Phoebe’s famous Smelly Cat from Friends, but fortunately most of the song was more purely reminiscent of Harry Connick, Jr, though again, Peter sounded more impressively unique live. The album, we must remember, is a year old and just a snapshot of his offerings at the time, and particularly such a young man will continue to develop, so there’s no telling what treasures he will unleash on us next time. This song, however—with music by Cincotti and lyrics by his mother and sister—is one of his strongest original numbers, which successfully manages to sound like something written in another age whilst remaining catchy enough to capture your mind for several days after hearing it. His remarkable piano instrumental—played between his two-hand manoeuvres to push that famous floppy hair off his face—and the tremendous, lively sax solo were truly fantastic embellishments.
Although Kreitzer and Cincotti were clearly the stars of the song, both Mori’s bass and McLean’s drums continued to be outstanding. McLean must be the only drummer to get RSI in his neck rather than his arms. He looked, from a distance, like a young Brandon Marsalis and all evening kept his head of cropped hair tilted down and to the left as he half-smiled to himself, which must give him a terrible pain in the neck. A Toronto native who also began playing piano as a child and continues composing on his first instrument, McLean has lectured on his chosen method of expression, the drums, and we witnessed an extensive range of styles and sounds bursting from his small drum kit. He has studied under jazz drummer Kenny Washington, played with many greats including Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Wynton Marsalis, and toured with renowned pianist/singer Andy Bey.
When the band finished playing the song, which was even more delightful live and it seemed even Peter had fun, the audience’s tremendous reaction surely made up for any stern words the professor might have given Peter when he failed to turn in his term paper. What a productive way to fail a project. Beats just hanging out at the mall!
Next, Peter told us that he would like to play for us the most recent song he had written, which stirred up an obvious air of excitement in the hall. Kreitzer left the stage again presumably to put his smoking sax on ice, and the slow, pop-y song began with Peter on his own, just voice and piano. ‘You know I care for you,’ he sang, gazing out over the adoring audience. The other two musicians joined in after a bit, the brushed cymbals giving the song its only vague jazz feel; the rest was pure Pop Idol pop, I felt, and the drums eventually descended into something more appropriate for an 80s rock ballad. The lyrics seemed to be rather weak, but frankly what you would expect of a songwriter of Peter’s age. I suppose one forgets his extreme youth and his newness to composing lyrics, since he’s aeons ahead of his age in composing and playing, so it would be wrong to criticise him. Frankly, this song with its boy band feel and lines like ‘Would you ever wanna be the one to rescue me’ could probably easily break the hearts of any young girls with pop posters on their walls, but sophistication it was not. When singing the line about rescuing, and undoubtedly well aware of his power over the fairer sex, Peter would gaze out into the audience with a deliberately helpless smile, to be adored.
I would venture to guess the song is called On the Moon as the refrain was something like, ‘On the moon, that’s where you’ll find me soon. / I’ll be alone again / But that’s okay, I must be on my own again.’ It almost seemed like it was his style of a Rocket Man or Starman theme (but slightly more down to earth), with the inevitable heart-tugging element found in his type of music. The light, frothy tune was slightly stronger than the lyrics but not the sort of thing that would grab your brain and make you hum it for ages. If I were grading this term paper, I’d have to mark it with a ‘can do better’ because it is evident that he can. Yet somehow I feel that, if it appears on the next album, it could be the making of him in terms of popularity (with the crucial youngsters who is current repertoire might pass by), and it might improve with several listens. Still, it was appreciated by the Queen Elizabeth Hall, though I suspect Peter’s dazzling smiles, as well as a lovely bit of tinkling on the piano, helped it along.
As Peter’s band left the stage during the applause, he dedicated the next song to one of the finest jazz pianists of all time, he said: Erroll Garner. Pittsburgh-born Garner, a self-taught pianist who began playing in the 20s at the age of three, developed from the novelty rags of that era a highly influential style of swinging jazz that focused on a freestyle melody played with the right hand on the higher octaves whilst the left hand supported it with rhythm-guitar style chords, usually following a choppy introduction to the tune. On Cincotti’s album, he inventively plays a Blood, Sweat and Tears song, Spinning Wheel (you know, ‘what goes up / must come down’), in Erroll Garner player piano style.
Although I am not sure that Garner himself ever covered the song that Peter dedicated to him, Henry Creamer and John Turner Layton’s delightfully catchy After You’ve Gone, artists who influenced Cincotti have done, including Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick, Jr, and Louis Armstrong. I knew the song from the 1979 Bob Fosse tribute show/film, All That Jazz, but no version I had heard produced visions of such light-hearted fun as Cincotti playing it this evening in pure Garner style.
Foregoing the familiar lyrics, Cincotti produced almost an old-time player piano instrumental version, as much of the audience, including the human smoky bar beside me, hummed along. Cincotti focused closely on his hands, which played a trillion notes where others might have dared to play only one, adding long improvised parts with all 32 of his fingers, creating feel-good moments that Peter clearly enjoyed as much as the rest of us. His own excitement and incredible, unfaltering energy kept bubbling away and expanding for an enjoyable age, and I almost expected him to be elevated on a platform like a Wurlitzer player in a cinema in the ‘50s before a ragtime film began to play on the screen behind him. After demonstrating that he was the most co-ordinated man on earth, Peter tacked on final garnishes on the piano even after the solid applause filled the hall and the band returned to the stage.
After a quick and modest ‘thank you,’ Peter launched into Ray Noble’s Cherokee (Indian Love Song) from the late 30s. The lyrics suited Peter’s alluring style of crooning beautifully: ‘Dreams of summertime, of lovertime gone by, / Throng my memory so tenderly, and sigh. My / Sweet Indian Maiden, one day I’ll hold you, / In my arms fold you, Cherokee.’ With the stage now lit as though flooded by colourful rays of sunshine, the band joined Peter as he particularly shone on the higher notes, with Kreitzer adding a few quick, zippy scales on the sax. The bass joined Peter’s inventive piano then in racing into a rapid instrumental with notoriously challenging key changes, joined by quick drumming on cymbals with an occasional snatch of snare, as the band again presented themselves as a polished professional outfit. They occasionally ventured separately into amazing solos in a long instrumental part—first the sax wowing everyone again, then a quickfire bass part, which Peter watched as he played gently to accompany the others. The applause for the sax solo drowned out a bit of Peter’s clear crooning again, but he never seemed to mind in the slightest. The perspicuous yet improvisational ensemble piece justly earned a great deal of applause when they finished.
Peter then told us that he wanted to play another song that he recently wrote, called He’s Watching. The lyrics were a bit like the song of a similar name (He’s Watching Me) by Christian artists the Gaither Vocal Band, but whereas that song speaks of a busy God still finding time to watch over his creations, Cincotti’s version was surely about his father who died when Peter was 13, and who clearly had influenced him greatly. However, I suspect that, when he revisits the theme later in life, the song might end up sounding more like a description of a journey where one’s old life is left behind than a song solely focused on one other person, whilst remaining an instrument of inspiration.
‘Within the distant clouds, I see a friend of mine,’ he then sang over a more mature tune than his previous original number, and this composition suited his wonderful voice much better, which particularly excelled when he stretched to the higher notes. The song again had pop tones despite jazzy drums, but its melody was more complicated than many of Peter’s songs, which are so often based on simplicity. The best of the lines was ‘now strengthened by the tears I’ve never shown, strengthened by the years I’ve never known’. The basic tune with a darker sound, which began low and rose smoothly to higher parts of the register, somehow even vaguely reminded me of Tom Waits’ song of dementia, What is He Building? Cincotti beamed during Kreizer’s sax solo when he sounded as though he were playing two saxes at once, whilst the bass player shook his head to the rhythm like something straight out of a hip ‘50s beat club. Cincotti cut the song off suddenly, prompting huge applause from the audience for his strong composition and its delivery.
Peter then stood and moved to centre stage, where he said he wanted to tell us about some exciting things in his life recently. It was so refreshing that, rather than being smug or acting matter-of-fact about these wonderful achievements, he was somewhat excitedly sharing them with us as though we were good friends. He told us about Kevin Spacey casting him in the forthcoming Bobby Darin biopic as Dick Behrke, and said he got to speak to Behrke himself after he stopped by a friend’s studio in New York and mentioned his new role, only to have the friend pick up the phone to ring Behrke, saying, ‘I’ve got a guy here who’s playing you.’
In the film, Spacey will be playing the late young star, which sounds an odd bit of casting but should be perfect as the actor is an incredibly talented mimic and a strong singer. Also, though Bobby Darin is often remembered as the cute youthful Mr Sandra Dee who famously sang Beyond the Sea, Splish! Splash!, and Mack the Knife, he actually was a chronically ill, bald, insecure man with a toupee, and I can’t wait to see the film about his fascinating life. It might even go some way towards making up for my falling asleep in the stalls for the duration of Spacey’s lauded London performance in The Iceman Cometh, but I doubt it (Don’t look at me like that! I had to quell my incessant coughing so that I wouldn’t disrupt the proceedings, but overdosed on anti-cough medicine and quelled myself into a zombie-like state instead). Spacey apparently cast Cincotti as Darin’s friend and arranger, Dick Behrke, because Cincotti is Behrke, and when Cincotti expressed concern about not being an actor, Spacey reportedly retorted, ‘I didn’t cast you as a taxi driver’.
Although Cincotti has also had brief experiences in drama prior to that, he didn’t mention his appearance last September in the soap The Young And The Restless, a part in the upcoming Spider-man sequel, Spider-Man II, or his role in the award-winning off-Broadway revue, Our Sinatra. Instead, his conversation focused on filming the Darin picture in Berlin, ‘and there’s one thing I have to say about Berlin,’ he stated, sitting at the piano, ‘and that’s….’ He then leaned into the mike and began singing a cappella, ‘I Love Paris’, sparking laughter from the audience. He treated us to a delightful jazzy rendition of the Cole Porter song, starting out a bit as Nat King Cole covered it, but then growing more lively and quick. Peter raised his voice to the upper register on the second verse, adding piano as Kreitzer injected bright bursts of sunny sax.
I noticed during this number that drummer Mark McLean was a bit of a sorcerer as he would have brushes in his hand one second and then the next, he would be holding drumsticks, even though I never saw him change them. Perhaps he had something up his sleeve. The band then watched Peter as he launched into a bright, extended entertaining piano solo, his head teetering back and forth over the keyboard like one of those toy bobbing birds. The audience applauded his fine finger-tapping as he began to sing again, but they stopped short rather than miss his lovely vocals. After a few trills on the piano (and many thrills on the piano!), Peter almost faded the music out, and his bright interpretation of the classic song earned big applause.
‘Before we do the last number,’ he broke our hearts by saying, ‘I would like to give a special thanks to all of those at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.’ He added that he would be signing CDs out in the foyer after the concert, and once again, he introduced his magnificent accompanists, who each took a well-deserved bow. Then they all began playing a grand instrumental introduction, whilst bathed in red lights, to I Love Being Here With You. The song has been covered by another jazz revivalist, Diana Krall, but it was written by one of the greatest female pop and jazz singers ever, Peggy Lee, with Bill Schluger. Peter began singing the first lines smoothly, ‘I love the east, I love the west’—but then seemed to opt for a cutesy style that made him sound far too nasal, diluting his voice until it sounded reedy. It was a shame, as clearly he had demonstrated all night that his silky voice was far more capable than some would give him credit for, but he manipulated it during this number so that it sounded distorted and weak. Fortunately, the music was outstanding, with each musician getting a turn in the spotlight with an improvised solo that impressed the audience, where many a foot was a-tapping. Kreitzer, in particular, wowed us all by holding out a terribly high note for over 90 seconds, until he started changing colour from lack of air. Or maybe that was the lighting; it was hard to tell.
Adding a line in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Peter punctuated the solos by belting out high notes as though he were singing the finale of New York, New York. The song provided a spectacular finish to the seamless evening. All four men stood at centre stage in a horizontal line with their arms around each other’s shoulders, then bowed in unison. Then off they went.
After a short period of intensive cheers and applause calling for an encore, the band returned. Young Barak Mori began plucking away at his bass as Peter took a seat at the piano—only to get shrill feedback from his mike. ‘I’m deaf now!’ he quipped, then hammed up a bit of amnesia as well, saying ‘We’re going to start the show with….’ The audience chuckled, the bass continued to carry the rhythm, and Kreitzer stood holding his sax in readiness. With only the steadily impressive bass line continuing, we could not tell what song was next until Peter’s lone vocals soared over the bass, singing a blinding rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’, another song on his album, which drew cheers after the first line. This song apparently deserves the credit for making Peter want to play jazz piano, after hearing Fats Waller’s version of it, so we owe the song a lot. He then played a bit of a delayed introduction on the ivories, as McLean kicked in on the brushed cymbals and snares, looking like Cinderella sweeping the drums, with Kreitzer finally adding some delectable tenor sax.
The musicians added subtle additions to the melody here and there, and Peter’s voice came across beautifully smoothly but with some tinny moments. However, rather than being caused by fatigue, it seemed to be a deliberate manipulation for an effect that didn’t quite work.
We were then treated to the adored routine of Kreitzer impressing us with a sax solo while Peter watched, before everyone stopped suddenly when Peter’s hands leapt upon the keyboard as he played a screamingly rapid piano solo that seemed to take us back in time to when player pianos ruled the ragtime roost. The whole song was so overwhelmingly magical that it almost made up for the fact that it was their last, and they bowed together again before leaving the stage, almost 90 minutes after taking to it, without an interval to catch their breath.
Well, often in concerts, two encores are the norm. But it seemed that Peter usually only played one encore, and a lot of people in the audience were putting on their coats and making their way to the exits. Although I am the queen of cynicism, I could only compromise by putting on my coat but remaining in my seat. It seemed clear that they would not be returning for another set, and yet, as this was their debut in the UK, they surely would have to readjust their routines for us. The cheers were not dying out.
Someone in the venue eventually gave up and started to turn up the house lights, which is our basic cue to get out. At that point, even I was about to rush to the exit, when suddenly the band appeared on stage again—hurrah. The house lights were quickly extinguished, and those of us by our seats sat down again. A great many cynics were standing, lining the wall of the Hall, and many had foolishly already left. They truly missed out on greatness, as we were treated to a stupefying, rapid instrumental. All four men raced impeccably through a sprinting rhythm, the sax in particular rushing through another astounding piece as Peter’s fingers flew over the ivories. Together, they almost sounded like they were playing parts of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, but it was more likely one of those instrumentals that I can’t name for sure. Perhaps this was Cincotti’s award-winning arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia. Again, I have heard Gillespie’s version but understand that Cincotti’s is much racier, so this could have been it in an unrecognisable, trumpet-less form. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that this was that piece for sure. I suppose it’s safe to say that we heard that piece that night and it was amazing, but that leaves me at a loss when trying to name at least one instrumental in the set list—either this one or the one played earlier. But what matters is that they both thrilled me, whatever they were.
In any case, this great unplanned finale was a huge crowd pleaser, with splendid solos on sax as Peter beamed away, and a breath-taking bass solo where Mori sounded as though he were playing both bass and guitar with four hands, during which Peter leaned back and relaxed with a drink of water. Eventually, McLean was extorting admiration with some Cab Calloway type pounding drums, before letting loose on his entire small drum set—three cymbals and high hat, two snares, a wood block and a bass drum, all tweaked by the expert to resemble a raging rhythmic storm. He played for some time with amazing energy and wowed us all. During McLean’s shining minutes, Peter folded his hands on top of his piano, leaned forward and almost studied his friend as he displayed his craft. Eventually, he leaned back as though in awe and just smiled, the saxophonist and bass player also just standing and watching magic McLean as he carried on for about three minutes. Not everyone wants to listen to a long drum solo, but if you ever doubted that you could, the masterful McLean would cure your doubts. He turned his drums into bells somehow.
Seemingly ten years later, McLean was still drumming strong, and finally ended his stint by hitting what sounded like a triangle, to absolutely massive cheers in the hall. The sax then kicked in as though he were a speeding train. Finally, Peter played a piece on the piano that sounded like swirls of freestyle jazz, endlessly beaming as he did so. All the musicians merged into the song’s rhythm, with the sax featured, and Kreitzer closed the song on an incredibly high note.
With that, the crowd utterly erupted and cheered hugely, but knew that we could ask for no more. The four bowed again and left us in a strangely silent hall.
When I returned to the Foyer, I thought I might just take a quick photo of Peter whilst he signed other people’s albums. However, I waited an age and eventually had to run for my train before he appeared, and it took me forever to manoeuvre my way through the foyer that was packed with people hoping to see Peter and, fortunately, buying his album. The album has some marvellous songs on it, both original—which is crucial, as the world is full of Sinatra imitators so we need something more—and covers, including the Muppets’ Rainbow Connection. Before you judge him too harshly, you should note that Van Morrison proved that there was no shame in covering a Kermit the Frog song. Check out Cincotti's album before you waste any more time in ignorance as I did.
Better yet, see him live, as his voice has greatly improved since he recorded his album, and his ability to express himself through it is improving as he gains more experience before such sizeable audiences. Still, it will always be overshadowed by his outstanding piano playing, an inevitability that is no bad thing. His delivery throughout the evening was remarkably mature; there was no sense of us ogling a novelty act, of being amazed because he was a child prodigy, a jazz version of Roddy Frame. Instead, this was a remarkably fine performance of a jazz quartet, regardless of their low average age. Peter led them with charm and seemed to have fun as we did. He was a delight to watch, a true professional musician to admire for years to come, and I can’t wait to see him in 10 years’ time. Though I doubt I’ll be able to get my hands on such a sought after ticket then.
Copyright © 2004 by TC. All rights reserved.
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