Peter Cincotti
Peter Cincotti
When Peter Cincotti played the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room last year, he arrived like a comet, lighting up New York nightlife for a brief moment as so many highly anticipated phenoms do. All of 18 years old at the time, he was that perfect media package: impossibly young, boyishly handsome, and oozing raw talent. One year later, at the advanced age of 19, he is back at the Oak Room for a run through March 8 -- and now there is new evidence that he wasn't (and isn't) a comet at all. He is, rather, a newly discovered star that will orbit New York at least once yearly for the foreseeable future. And at his age, the future is just one stop short of infinity.

Last year, Cincotti showed that tantalizing combination of precocious talent and awkward sensitivity (otherwise known as promise) that makes critics salivate. He was much praised at the time by many. But we have seen several young artists, particularly in the jazz world, burst upon the scene virtually anointed with stardom only to freeze dry their artistic souls. Perhaps they are trying to hold on to that acclaim, fearing (or being advised) that change will suddenly knock them off the media gravy train. In Cincotti's case, some things were already apparent. This young man can play the piano almost as if he invented it. Last year, however, his vocals were somewhat weak. His interpretive skills both as a pianist and as a jazz vocalist were as tentative as a flower bud in April. Oh, but this year...

You know how quickly the computer industry changes? Well, Peter Cincotti is evolving just as fast. And his sound is much, much better. Particularly on vocals. And even more so on ballads. His rendition of "I've Never Been in Love Before" (Frank Loesser, from Guys & Dolls) is aching in its understated evocation of youth overwhelmed by emotion. The vocalizing is tender, never trying to reach out and grab the audience, but rather gently inviting us in to share his wonder. Later in the show he performs "Falling in Love Again" (Sammy Lerner/Frederick Hollander), a song so associated with Marlene Dietrich that you ordinarily hear it in your head (if not in a cabaret club) with Dietrich's accent ringing in your ears. His refreshing rephrasing of the lyric, emphasizing the song's sentiments in a far less world-weary manner, reinvented the tune. In this new rendition, the song belongs entirely to Cincotti; thoughts of Dietrich simply vanish. If that doesn't tell you something about this kid, nothing will.

In his current act at the Oak Room, Cincotti surrounds himself with three excellent musicians -- David Finck on bass, Kenny Washington on drums, and Scott Kreitzer on tenor sax. The trio supports Cincotti's sound, filling it out and giving it additional colors. When this young entertainer reaches the point when he can successfully play the Oak Room alone, he's going to be sensational beyond words. Right now, he's pretty damned good.

Cincotti's work on the piano continues to thrill. Performing David Clayton Thomas' "Spinning Wheel" in the manner of Errol Garner, he's at once hilarious and impressive. His patter is engaging, never forced, and he is a more poised, confident entertainer than he was this time last year. But while he is really quite astonishing, there is a great deal more that Cincotti needs to accomplish in order to fulfill his promise. He is far better on ballads than he is on uptempo tunes. His opening number of "Raise the Roof " (Andrew Lippa, from the Off-Broadway musical The Wild Party) did not raise the temperature, let alone the roof. He doesn't sing with the kind of abandon that that stirring tune requires. He is also writing songs (three of which are in this show) that pale in comparison with the otherwise well-chosen standards he includes in his program. On the other hand, the very fact that he's writing these songs suggests a compelling commitment to his craft -- which only reinforces the sense that Cincotti will continue to grow and develop as an artist.