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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.


cover art

Nikki Yanofsky

Nikki

(Decca; US: 4 May 2010; UK: 1 Nov 2010)

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.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


Media
Nikki Yanofsky speaks and performs "Mr. Paganini" live at Carnegie Hall at the age of 14.
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She started as a pre-teen Ella Fitzgerald clone, flirted with being Norah Jones, and now (at 20) finally sounds like the young pop singer she is...despite some lingering belief that she needs to "give jazz new life".
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