Nikki Yanofsky Mad Libs
Nikki Yanofsky is a ___________________ [adjective] singer who started out ___________________ [gerund phrase] and seemed destined to ___________________ [dire prediction for the future].
Well, whaddaya think? The obvious answers are: YOUNG and IMITATING ELLA FITZGERALD, but that third was has not been so obvious.
Yanofsky appeared at her hometown Montreal Jazz Festival when she was just 12 years old — one of those Young Jazz Phenoms that seem to appear every few years, facilely channelling Ella when she was still dotting her “I”s with puppy-dog hearts. What usually happens? That kind of talent can fizzle, mere precocious imitation. It can produce an artist whose work grows in that same vein but maybe always overshadowed by the initial influence. Or the young person, full of talent, can embrace her own generation and seek her own sound.
Yanofsky is trying to find herself on Little Secret, but she’s doing it with the help of none other than Quincy Jones, so maybe the search is, uh, less personal than professional. Yanofsky has the pipes and maybe the look of a pop star. But what is undeniably strange about this recording is the way in which it nominally tries to be a “jazz” record as well as a pop record. Q and his young ward are trying to retain (somewhat) the things that make Yanofsky unique while, simultaneously, putting her over as a soul singer, a pop star, a raucous hit-maker. It’s a tricky needle to thread. The temptation is to spread your bets around the table a bit, try a few different things. And that is the case here.
The dominant sound on Little Secret is an enjoyable neo-soul sound that was copped, maybe more than just a little bit, from Amy Winehouse’s fun and joyous Back to Black. The opening track, “Something New”,…isn’t. There’s nothing new about the quick pick-ups to certain bars of the verse played by a honking R&B baritone sax, the horn blasts, and even the tune’s structure/melody/chords, which sound a whole lot like Herbie Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man”. But that’s cool — novelty is not the most important thing in pop music. And, even though Yanofsky claims in her booklet notes that Quincy thinks she “can give jazz new life”, this is pop music, purely as anything can be.
Yanofsky’s last record, Nikki, came out in 2010, and it packaged her as a different kind of pop star. She was collaborating with Jesse Harris on songwriting — Harris being the composer of Norah Jones’s mega-hit “Don’t Know Why”, a guy with a genuine feel for smart, easy-to-love-but-still-hip, jazz-inflected singer-songwriter pop. Little Secret not only abandons those kinds of arrangments, but it finds our young singer using a vocal approach that is infused with the embellishments, vocal tics, and even lyric pronunciations of a standard-issue 2014 soul diva. It’s a vocal style both calculated to sell and probably one that makes lots of sense to a 20 year-old in the year 2014.
Still, Little Secret makes this game but often awkward attempt to still be a jazz record. To my ears the feints toward jazz are superficial and odd. Most plainly, there is the positively peculiar “Jeepers Creepers 2.0”, a funked-out version of the old-timey tune associated with Ella, adorned with both period-styled piano and booming synth bass, both ’30s-sounding horn bits and electronic precussion. Maybe there’s an audience that wants to hear a corny old novelty song given a dancehall interpretation…maybe? Unlikely.
“You Mean the World to Me”, as written, is an old-fashioned 32-par Tin Pan Alley type song, and for the first 12 bars of the arrangement, the production is that of a jazz record. On the next bar, however, Panofsky’s vocals are suddenly drenched in pop effects and the drums go into a funk backbeat. It’s kind of a big band arrangement and kind of a dance track. And, thus, neither, really.
Elsewhere, amidst songs otherwise straight down the middle of the soul/R&B road, Yanofsky is asked to do a whole bunch of scat singing. “Blessed with Your Curse” actually opens with a bit of this, setting it up as the tune’s hook, doubled by horns. For the most part, the tune is drenched in reverb, electronic/groove percussion, and a big, hooky chorus, but it starts with scatting. (Panofsky’s booklet notes refer to this song as being written from a scat line.) Scat singing appears again in the closing seconds of “Waiting on the Sun”, which is a more middle-of-the-road soul ballad, and doo-doot-be-bwee-doooop there it is again in the last 30 seconds of “Necessary Evil”. On “Knock Knock”, a slow funk thing with a punchy horn-based arrangement also laced with some string parts, there it is again.
Then there is the album’s title track, which starts with a bass line and brushes-on-snare groove that clearly sets out to remind listeners of the Peggy Lee classic “Fever”, even stealing a bit of that old song’s melody on the verse. The song quickly revs into a shoutable chorus, with Yanofsky’s soul cry rising up above things. But through to the end, it uses little bits and pieces of nostalgia to evoke the past: quick bits of overdubbed vocal harmony that sound slightly Andrews Sisters-esque, for example.
Mostly, though, you can read this recording’s intent even just in the song titles alone: “Knock Knock”, “Kaboom Pow” and “Bang” are pretty clear in this regard. Yanofsky and Mr. Quincy Jones are trying to get your attention. (One irresistible bit from the recording’s booklet: Yanofsky recalls the first time she met “Q” — as he met her in his living room wearing a bathrobe and slippers…and carrying a smoothie. Yes, this is exactly how I want to see Quincy Jones in my mind!) “Enough of You” is a great pop song, pretty much the standard kiss-off of a misbehaving boyfriend, but grooving like mad in that retro way, some vibes clanging amidest the funky beat, a hip horn break right before Yanofsky gives her version of a James Brown cry, then back to the chorus. Tasty, zesty, danceable! “Kaboom” is even better, uptempo groove music you’d want to hear at a party, a wall of sound coming at you rich in pop syncopation, mechanical I suppose but — as 2014 pop music goes — pretty sincere in just wanting to be fun. (Is there some scat singing in there too? Yes. But the stacked soul vocals on the breakdown chorus toward the end sounds nothing like Ella, and happily so.) “Tonight we’re going 24 hours / So turn it up a little bit louder” — a good lyric for a 20 year-old.
If you’re looking for modern jazz singers who happen to be from Canada, there’s always Diana Krall, though she’s currently mired in a David Foster-produced mess on Verve that is also a bid for pop stardom of a much more boring kind. Better, you can check out Elizabeth Shepherd, a jazz-trained pianist and singer whose new The Signal funky and insinuating but smart and sophisticated too — an original voice who is organically fusing jazz and pop, not trying to graft them together with gimmicks or Crazy Glue.
Nikki, you are released from having to “somehow fuse jazz and pop” or from Quincy’s hope that you will “give jazz new life”. Just make some more grooving pop music — a surface pleasure perhaps, but no sin. It’ll sound better with the scat singing and the odd jabs at bigbandiness. Get your young groove on with the retro-guilt. But do have a smoothie with Q for the rest of us.