Peter Cincotti on his music and representing New York

Virtuosic pianist, composer and singer- songwriter Peter Cincotti has played in venues all around the world, including Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. He recently added Café Carlyle Hong Kong to that list by kicking off its third-anniversary celebrations with his unique style of music. Haley Sengsavanh hears more

Hot on the heels of his sold-out April residency at New York’s Carlyle & Co, Peter Cincotti immediately hopped on a plane to bring that same energy to its Hong Kong counterpart. From May 20 to June 7, the multi-hyphenate music phenom kicked off Café Carlyle Hong Kong’s third-anniversary celebrations as its first transatlantic performer.

After listening to his contemplative melodies and crooning vocals, it becomes all too clear why Cincotti’s presence is so in demand. Being in the limelight is nothing new for him either; at 12 years old, he snuck into local clubs late at night to perform gigs. Legendary music producer Phil Ramone (who boasts 34 Grammy nominations) discovered him at one of those shows, and ended up producing Cincotti’s eponymous debut album, which made him the youngest musician to reach No.1 on the Billboard jazz charts.

Despite being hailed as a virtuoso from such a young age, Cincotti says that he has always taken that label with a grain of salt. “If you put too much stock into how other people categorise you,” he says, “then you put the handcuffs on yourself!”

Since then, Cincotti has continued to develop his unique style of music. His latest album, Killer on the Keys, includes a few autobiographical original songs that he says are his most personal yet. For instance, in “Ghost of My Father”, he touchingly laments the loss of his father at 13. This album, much like his discography, references many genres and musical greats. It is aptly titled after the virtuosic and innovative pianist Jerry Lee Lewis (also known as ‘The Killer’), and features arrangements of beloved songs by fellow pianists such as Lady Gaga (‘Poker Face’), Billy Joel (‘New York State of Mind’), and Nat King Cole (‘Sweet Lorraine”). Cincotti says that rather than viewing this album as a mix of multiple genres, he is using these songs as the common thread “to make piano itself the genre”.

When asked about another one of his musical influences, the prodigious jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans, Cincotti says that artists from that generation inspired him to push the envelope. Creating an arrangement of another artist’s work is “never about replication, it’s about expression”, he says, adding that “every original song, every solo, every vocal interpretation should be about peeling the onion until you get to the truth.” It’s clear that Cincotti works very purposefully, carefully weaving together influences across genres before adding his own spin.

“Categories like pop and jazz aren’t there for the artist, they’re there for the casual listener. I think it’s more accurate to say that music has only two genres: good and bad,” he says. Cincotti’s music not only serves as a masterclass on how to bridge different styles of music together, but puts forth a convincing argument on why it should be done.

Cincotti is also a proud New Yorker, and credits the city for shaping his formative years. He says he grew up “entrenched in the world of live music, clubs, Broadway shows, Madison Square Garden”. “If you grow up there, there’s something beyond the music that seeps into you, your approach to life, and as a result, your approach to an instrument.”

Café Carlyle Hong Kong is named after the legendary Café Carlyle in New York, which makes Cincotti an even more perfect choice of performer. On representing the Big Apple on the Hong Kong music scene, he says, “It’s an honour. I’m not sure I could help if I tried though. New York is in my blood, and therefore in my music.”

Cincotti also draws comparisons between his beloved city and Hong Kong, saying that he had been buzzing about returning here since his last private performance years ago. “The cuisine is among the best and one of my personal favourites,” he says.

Despite being slated for only three shows here, Cincotti hopes to spend more time performing in Asia in the future. Looking ahead, he’s excited to continue his musical journey. But when asked about the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind, Cincotti coyly responds, “I’m still in the creation mode. Ask me in ten years, maybe?” We’ll just have to wait and see.

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