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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?

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".

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.
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.

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