Nikki Yanofsky: Forever Young

The 16-year-old Canadian singer Nikki Yanofsky is taking the jazz world by storm. She wants to be more than just a phenom or a jazz singer. Has she got what it takes?

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.

Artist: Nikki Yanofsky

Album: Nikki

Label: Decca

US Release Date: 2010-05-04

UK Release Date: 2010-11-01

Artist website:

Image: 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.

Next Page





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.