Jazz applauds virtuosity, generally. It’s almost mandatory that a player or singer needs real technique to make it in jazz. Thus, jazz audiences are susceptible to the lure of the prodigy. “Wow,” they tend to think, “how did that kid get so good so fast?”
Enter Nikki Yanofsky.
Yanofsky first appeared as a 12-year-old singer, a little girl from Quebec who seemed to be channeling Ella Fitzgerald in a hardcore way. I remember the first time someone sent me a YouTube link featuring this little girl, who was spilling out scat choruses and seemed to be placing every syllable on the swinging beat with astonishing ease and assurance. Amazing talent, I thought, but she’s a little girl.
In 2010, Yanofsky is 16, but she seems astonishingly much more mature. She received worldwide exposure by jazzing up “O, Canada” at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and May sees the release of her first real recording: a disc that splits time between the singer’s obvious affection—even passion—for half-century-old jazz singing and her genuine ease with more contemporary pop in the Norah Jones bag.
Is she still a little girl, a prodigy who powerfully copies more original artists, or is she someone with a clear sense of what she wants to communicate? Is the latter too much to ask of a 16-year-old, no matter how talented? Hasn’t she already cleared the bar by a mile, in a world where few 16-year-olds even know who Ella Fitzgerald is, much less find themselves challenged to nail her perfect time, ringing tone, and clarion joy of singing?
In Her Own Words
On the afternoon before she would appear the New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-cola to launch her debut disc in the US, Yanofsky was talkative. Mile-a-minute so.
Yanofsky’s pace in conversation tells you something about her music. Both fly. The seemingly caffeinated pre-teen with braces who you first saw doing the Ella scat-classic “Airmail Special” is the same one running staccato sentences across her throat with conversational verve. She is bubbly, but manically—charmingly—so.
The story of how she discovered jazz has been told plenty. A singing teacher who had been challenging her with tough songs suggested “Airmail Special”, and Nikki loved it. In seemingly no time at all, Fitzgerald became her favorite singer and primary influence. For a young girl possessing out-sized technique, this made sense. Like Ella, Nikki learned from records, started singing young (17 in Ella’s case) and projects an irresistible exuberance of spirit. Also like Ella, Nikki will likely be accused of prizing speed and attack over a nuanced approach to lyrics.
The comparison, however, goes only so far. The Yanofsky of 2010 does not sound all that much like Fitzgerald, even as she channels Fitzgerald’s athletic sense of play and energy. Even on the straight jazz material, Yanofsky is slowly becoming her own. The “Take the A Train” on Nikki contains some husky growl and not a little muscular punch that suggests how much R&B the young singer has absorbed.
“I don’t consider myself a jazz singer”, Yanofsky admits—or brags?—quite clearly. “I just sing everything.”
Sure enough, her debut disc works more than one angle. “A Train”, “I Got Rhythm”, “God Bless the Child”, “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)”, and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” are among the hoariest of standards. An equal number of the tracks are variants of the Norah Jones formula of friendly/folkie soul-pop songs written by Yanofsky along with Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Harris, the very guy who penned “Don’t Know Why”.
When asked what other jazz singers have made an impact on her other than Fitzgerald, Yanofsky cites Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Nat (and Natalie) Cole, Anita O’Day, Jon Hendricks, and Doris Day. The affinity for Hendricks is obvious—Yanofsky is most purely “jazzy” when she is scatting in a light, crisp voice that avoids too much vibrato. At times her tone (check out the start of her Ella-rific “Mr. Paganini”) is creamy and sunny like Day. She will tell you that the less Ella-ish singers have “helped me a lot with my time”.
Frankly, though, the influence who hovers over her sound on most of Nikki is Natalie Cole, who has straddled modern soul and jazz with a kind of workmanlike versatility. Yanofsky, at least in the past year, seems to be moving with a canny strategy between jazz, adult-pleasing pop (“I Believe”, the Olympic “theme song” that seems infinitely more Celine Dion than Ella/Billie), and the hip-ly cool pop on Nikki that seems much more likely to accompany a latte than appeal to other 16-year-olds.
When talking to you, Yanofsky seems plainly aware of the marketing strategy of her young career. “I was hyped up to be a jazz singer, but I’ve never felt that way”, she reports, with not a little pride. “I want to be able to do anything in the future and not have it surprise anyone.”
What’s Real, What’s the Package?
Just when you sense that Yanofsky is being handled supremely well by her managers, the teenage Nikki bursts forth, utterly unmanaged. Her voice prattles and spins just like any other teen’s as she tells you how she mainly likes to “hang out with my friends, go to the movies. But”, she notes, “it is getting harder.” She’s recognizable now, and just when her friends are relaxing, someone will approach her. “‘Did that guy just ask you to give him an autograph?’ my friends ask. Weird!”
It’s not necessarily “packaging” when Yanofsky admits that she doesn’t know exactly what band will be backing her up at Dizzy’s. It certainly doesn’t seem packaged when she admits that her technical knowledge of music theory is limited. “To be honest, my singing coach has been trying but it just doesn’t stick. We keep coming back to the circle of fifths, but I just keep coming back to just singing.”
It’s not really boasting but more a certain teenage thrill when she notes that, when she works with Harris and Sexsmith, “they treat me like an equal”. On the one hand, she’s happy that “some of my best friends are, like, forty years old” but on the other hand, “I brought one of my girlfriends to the Juno Awards last year.”
That said, Nikki itself is a calculated affair, with Phil Ramone producing. The jazz tunes are as short as the pop songs (five minutes or less), with strong melodies and only the briefest instrumental solos. The pop songs are custom-made for adults, with subtle backbeats and ringing electric pianos where a contemporary pop record would use hip hop groove and crunching guitars. While Yanofsky gets her soul on here, it’s a young girl’s simulacrum of soul. The package strives to appeal to mainstream grown-ups—not necessarily jazz fans and not a fan base that might move on quickly. Nikki is a plan for the future.
Is Yanofsky worried that comparisons to both Ella Fitzgerald and Norah Jones mean that she isn’t yet herself? “I think that people will make these comparisons, but not me. It’s human nature to compare. That’s okay.”
Fair enough. Yanofsky seems to be having the time of her life doing exactly what she loves. “I am always going to be singing. I think I might go to music school. But I see myself as singing all the time.” The pop songs may seem overly grown-up, but she co-wrote every last one. Lines like “And don’t it seem strange how time just drifts away?” may not seem to be the honest preoccupations of a normal teenager, but maybe Yanofsky deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, she is a kid who got hip to jazz when she was still wearing braces.
Earning that Benefit of the Doubt
On balance, Yanofsky’s debut should overcome the cynicism of listeners who smell calculation. Let’s be clear: this is a commercial album on a major label (Decca) that has every intention of turning the young Yanofsky into a kind of star. It goes about this honestly and with great skill.
The jazz standards are arranged with clarity and swing to highlight the singing. “I Got Rhythm” includes the full introductory verse, punched up with low brass, and Yanofsky seems easy as can be leading the band into a zipping double-time main section highlighted by staccato scatting that is Ella-rific. The best part, though, is when she scats in unison with a sharp piano/saxophone line then revs back into the theme with a snippet of “I Want to Be Happy”.
Her “God Bless the Child” is set atop of an old-school R&B 12/8 groove, with nice flares of brass and, on the bridge, strings. Neither Fitzgerald nor Billie Holiday is the model here but maybe a singer more like Dinah Washington: nice. “Sunny Side of the Street” is interpolated with Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, which is a totally successful “Why didn’t someone else think of that?” moment, full of swagger and swing. “Paganini” is an Ella set-piece that Yanofsky has been perfecting since she was a kid, and it is less thrilling now—just as the very-very pretty “Over the Rainbow” that closes the album feels like too many other very-very-very pretty “Rainbow"s.
The more interesting part of Nikki, however, is the half that takes a shot at creating smart, tuneful, adult pop music. These tunes have a percolating rhythm that is well-short of rock or hip hop, but that skips along with a neat thump compared to Norah Jones’ more popular work. “Gray Skies” is a lovely minor melody that floats over electric guitar, fat piano chords and backing vocals. It sounds like the smart rock music of Tracy Bonham rather than something Starbucks-y.
“Try Try Try” is a tune written by Feist that gets down with a scoop of gospel feeling. “Cool My Heels” and “Never Make It on Time” are just a bit more generic, but even here there are tasty horn stabs and angular little lines or organ or Wurlitzer electric piano that pull the music together.
If the album was going to have a hit, it might be with the ballad “For Another Day”, which is the gentlest pop treasure here. If a jazz critic were to wonder whether Yanofsky’s jazz singing will have a future beyond imitation, the answer is in “Bienvenue Dans Ma Vie”, which is an original tune written in English and French, featuring a gentle swing over accordion, piano, and brushes. This tune is utterly fresh, original, but also actual jazz. It invites Yanofsky to sing neither like Ella nor like Aretha, and therefore it results in the youngster’s most natural and relaxed track, a tune that tries less hard then all the others and is therefore that much more authentic and transparent.
The only real misfire on Nikki is the young singer’s attempt to write a jazz ballad. “First Lady” is her mash note to Fitzgerald (“I feel compelled to thank you, dear Ella”), but the too-sincere lyrics and the going-nowhere melody just serve to remind us why Kern and Rogers and Porter and Ellington were so special.
It’s enough that she is a very good young singer. Not yet as purposeful and subtle as Diana Krall. Not likely ever as interesting and daring as Cassandra Wilson. Still, she already seems more dynamic and versatile than Norah Jones and more vocally gifted than just about anyone, particularly anyone her age.
What Might Tomorrow Bring?
It’s instructive to recall the rise of the jazz singer Jane Monheit, who appeared as a kind of young Ella-clone about a decade ago. Monheit also sang standards with a young person’s verve, attacked some contemporary material, and eventually developed a personal sound and a few distinctive elements to her vocal attack. Monheit started as a sensation, then seemed revealed as derivative, and then found her own angle, her own attack. Once she grew up artistically, Monheit seemed less athletically brilliant but more intelligent in her choices.
Yanofsky’s debut is more assured than Monheit’s. Her pure instrument is better, less quirky, with a more athletic pliancy and less of cabaret feeling. Yanofsky leans more openly to soul singing, yet she also has a purer instrument for jazz.
In other words, Yanofsky—at least for now—has as wonderful a pool of vocal potential as any kid could hope for. She’s being handled, sure, but she’s being handled intelligently. Also, her attitude seems to be right on track for success. She knows she’s just getting started.
“I Started off just singing”, she says, “not really getting lessons. I only started learning technique two years ago. Before I was using black and white, but now I have lots of different colors. And I’m taking better care of my voice now. I drink lots of water.”
So it seems that this Canadian kid, her braces just barely off her teeth, is thinking about the long run of things. “I’m always thinking one step ahead.” For her next record she is already collecting songs. “I have lots of material from my collaboration with Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Harris that is not on this record. I also like the idea of collaborating on some stuff in a classic rock vein.”
Maybe she’s not a jazz singer, after all. Or maybe she will be one of the artists who, as naturally as can be imagined, will move jazz along in a new direction over time. Until then, she is having fun, which is the first thing we should be hoping for our youngest artists.
“I think the day that this stops being fun would be the worst possible day. I love it every day”, Yanofsky says of singing. For now, music fans can love her first real recording without putting too much pressure on it. The promise is palpable, and the immediate pleasures are there.