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Those looks ... that sound?

It's not clear if jazz 'It Boy' Peter Cincotti's voice merits the hype.

April 19, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Go ahead, judge this CD by its jewel-case cover.

That's what Concord Records most certainly wants you to do.

One look at pianist-singer Peter Cincotti -- jazz's newest "It Boy" -- on his debut album gives you a strong whiff of what his label is cooking up: Cincotti poses with a downcast gaze, clad in black jacket, white shirt, oyster-gray silk tie loosened, as if it's the last song before last call.

Turn it over to take in the song selection and -- oh my -- you'll bump into Cincotti seated at what could be a piano. But what he's about to do isn't as important as the glimpse of him glancing up, forelock obscuring one eye, peeled down to his sleeveless T-shirt, black suit slacks, in a moment most definitely long after last call.

And if -- not that you would, but if by chance -- you might have forgotten that face, scores of reproductions, like pages torn from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, rested front and center on every single linen-covered table at Catalina Bar & Grill as Cincotti passed through town recently. Keeping us company until the real thing arrived.

In this case, "hot new artist" clearly has varied meanings.

Cincotti rolled out onstage with a quartet -- rounded out by saxophone, drums and upright bass -- and charged into a rouser from "The Wild Party," "Raise the Roof." Then he dipped into "Miss Brown" before sinking into a frilly, self-penned (with the help of his mother, Cynthia) love song -- "Are You the One?," a personals ad set to music about walking hand in hand and sipping pink champagne he's still too young to order at the bar.

The Manhattan-born 19-year-old has already played the Oak Room at the venerable Algonquin, and, since he was 12 or 13, has been working a series of steady gigs at the Knickerbocker and at Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel (where, after a set, he was approached by Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone). His confidence is evident as he settles comfortably into a set that mixes instrumentals and vocals. However, wading into each song, he enunciates each syllable -- "whis-key, flow-wing" -- in an all-out, wide-eyed, first-blush way, as if he's captured a lead stage role.

By mid-set he looks as if he's just dashed off the lacrosse field -- he's flushed, his dark-blond hair tumbling into his eyes. With his big, winning grin and earnest patter, Cincotti informs the SRO audience that "these tunes may be old to you, but they're new to me."

He pauses for a moment, revealing a picket-fence row of white teeth. "That's not," he says, vamping over the ivories, "meant to be an insult."

A tentative chuckle builds as it rolls across the room. Cincotti leans into another chestnut.

Cincotti is an accomplished, fluid pianist, full of earnestness and enthusiasm and deft passion. You can hear how his influences -- Erroll Garner, Fats Waller -- course through him like a lifeline. His voice, however -- a high baritone -- is still a bit narrow and hollow in places, an instrument he'll grow into with life's twists and uncertainties.

Already there have been the comparisons -- easy and unavoidable -- to the other floppy-forelock poster boy, Harry Connick Jr. (Connick has been a bit of an inspiration-mentor to Cincotti, calling him up onstage way back in the early days -- when he was just a kid -- which would be just eight years ago.)

If Cincotti can be the Great Youth Hope to jazz, it's clear that he could be well worth Concord's big promotional investment. With Ramone producing this self-titled freshman effort and with all the chatter thus far, Cincotti is certainly getting an early test.

The press has taken the bait and run with it: "echoing the young Sinatra," "a brooding Hoagy Carmichael."

Although the album debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's traditional jazz chart, there are some who are skeptical. In a review in the Washington Post, music and culture critic Terry Teachout wrote, "What he does with those promising pipes? The first word that comes to mind is 'naive.' ... It sounds like a marching band clomping down the street."

The big noise and big plans leave Cincotti in a vulnerable spot. Will he live up to all the talk and comparisons?

He certainly wouldn't be the first to shoulder them.

The pop world has long been all about "the look" -- "artists" cultivated because they fit a look or just might ignite a new one. But it is more surprising when it comes out of the allegedly more sophisticated worlds of jazz or classical music, as in the case of the knockout violinist Vanessa-Mae, whose album covers sometimes don't show a violin.

Jazz loves its image -- even its cliches and affectations, whether it's smoky and intense, like the work of Blue Note photographer Francis Wolff, or softly lighted and optimistic, like the sunny West Coast answers of William Claxton.

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