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Pianist Peter Cincotti takes new direction

  • Story Highlights
  • Peter Cincotti had hit jazz album, now has album of pop songs
  • Native New Yorker insisted Angeleno David Foster come to N.Y. to produce
  • Cincotti started playing piano when he was 3; an early influence was Jerry Lee Lewis
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By Shanon Cook
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- When singer-pianist Peter Cincotti showed up to speak to CNN in 2004, he was fresh-faced and impeccably dressed in a suit and shiny shoes.

Peter Cincotti rose to fame as a jazz pianist. His new album features pop songs.

Peter Cincotti rose to fame as a jazz pianist. His new album features pop songs.

Seated at a piano, and under the watchful eye of his very sweet mother Cynthia, Cincotti performed the standard "How High the Moon," showing off piano skills you'd expect from someone far beyond his 21 years.

His debut album had just topped the Billboard traditional jazz chart -- the youngest artist to claim such a feat.

Now 25, Cincotti is still fresh-faced, but he sings to a very different tune. Looking trendy in a fitted sweater, his hair a little looser, his personality more playful -- mom didn't come to this interview -- Peter has gone pop.

"He's this great jazz pianist," says producer David Foster, who worked on Cincotti's new album. "And he just turned the whole thing 180 and wrote these incredible pop songs."

To Cincotti, whose pop debut "East of Angel Town" was released last week on Warner Bros. Records, the switch isn't that big a deal.

"I'm a musician," he says. "I was just playing what I love then, and I'm playing what I love now." Watch Cincotti do what he loves »

Enlisting Foster to help navigate the transition was crafty: Foster is a 15-time Grammy winner with an undeniable knack for generating pop hits. He also has a reputation for getting his way in the studio. But Cincotti, a native New Yorker, didn't make things easy.

"He's a control freak, too, so we butted heads a lot," says Foster. "And he actually made me come to New York to make the record. And I don't like New York because I'm claustrophobic and I don't dig elevators. But he made me come here for three months. That's how much I loved his music."

Cincotti smiles when he recalls the expletive-ridden voicemail message Foster left him expressing his displeasure over having to vacate his Los Angeles base to work on the project.

"I saved that message," Cincotti says. "It's great."

Cincotti talked to CNN about new beginnings, old influences and playing piano in the fast lane. The following is an edited version of the interview.

CNN: What do you love about pop?

Peter Cincotti: To be honest I don't even categorize (my music) as that. It's just what I'm doing now. This is my first record that I've written everything. It's my first record of original material so the style changed and that's basically what I'm doing right now.

CNN: When a 25-year-old is writing songs, what experiences are you drawing on?

Cincotti: Well, this record is ... kind of like a debut, and I wanted to write about things that I never sang about before in songs. Things that either happened to me, personal experiences. And I didn't want to write a record of "I love you and you love me."

So a lot of the subject matter I think is a bit atypical of what's out there right now ... at least to me.

CNN: You've been playing the piano since you were how old?

Cincotti: I started when I was 3. My grandma bought me this ten-key toy piano, and she taught me how to play "Happy Birthday." It was my third birthday, and I sat down and I never stopped.

CNN: Which pianists have inspired you over the years?

Cincotti: There are so many. I'm still going through phases. I'll just listen to a certain musician. The first guy I remember ... I got my first cassette ... it was a Jerry Lee Lewis tape. I remember I was 5 years old and I went with my uncle to the record store. And I always liked "Great Balls of Fire" ... and I just couldn't stop trying to play like Jerry Lee Lewis.

So he was the first piano player guy that really got under my skin. And then that led to many others ... piano players like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel. From Art Tatum to Shirley Horne ...

CNN: Jerry Lee Lewis played fast. Do you like to play fast?

Cincotti: Back then I did. Back then I was fascinated. The faster the better. Now, if it's called for, sure.

CNN: What was it like working with David Foster?

Cincotti: It was great. He was a pain in the ass! In a good way. And I was a pain in the ass back to him. But I love working with him. There was no BS. It was just a very honest relationship.

And I went through a period of taking my time figuring out what kind of producer I wanted for this record, and when he and I met ... we said "let's just do one song together and see if it works out." I was honored that he was interested, but at the same time I wanted the record to be right for what the vision was. But we got together and did 11 songs in three days. And it was one of those things that just clicked and happened. I couldn't imagine doing it with anyone else.

CNN: What do you have against Los Angeles?

Cincotti: I don't know if I have anything against it, but I'd rather spend my time elsewhere.

CNN: Like New York?

Cincotti: Like New York.

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CNN: You're a New Yorker through and through aren't you?

Cincotti: I guess so (laughs).

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