Joey Alexander and Nikki Yanofsky
Nikki Yanofsky photo by Royal Gilbert via Shore Fire

Growing Into Yourself: Former Jazz Prodigies Joey Alexander and Nikki Yanofsky Mature

New mature albums by jazz prodigies Joey Alexander and Nikki Yanofsky demonstrate the potential and limitations of starting an artistic career as a child.

Joey Alexander
Mack Avenue Records
20 May 2022
Nikki By Starlight
Nikki Yanofsky
MNRK Music Group
21 October 2022

Music is an art form prone to prodigies. Because the requirements of technical proficiency are so high—at least in jazz and classical music—there is some pure dazzle when a youngster can cut it. Wow, you think, “those are chops!” On second listen, though, you might wonder if a mere kid has any heart or has anything interesting to say.

Rather than judge musicians too early, I have learned it’s better to wait a while and see what develops. This year has brought us two new albums for former prodigies ready to be heard for real: pianist Joey Alexander and vocalist Nikki Yanofsky.

Joey Alexander

Joey Alexander is only 19 years old, but he has been a jazz phenom for a decade, at least since he played for Herbie Hancock in his home country (Indonesia) and certainly since Wynton Marsalis invited him to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2014, when he was just ten. He released his first recording a year later.

Alexander taught himself the music by listening to his dad’s records, diving into Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane the way most early piano students take on “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”. By all accounts (including Marsalis), he was dazzling and mature from the start. But as someone who reviews jazz recordings professionally, I stayed away from Alexander, even as a listener. Why not let him mature as an artist and a person and then listen to him seriously?

Origin, which came out this past spring as his debut on Mack Avenue, seems like an excellent place to start. It is a program of all original music, with Larry Grenadier (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums) in the rhythm section and guest appearances by other top talents in saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Gilad Hekselman. How is Alexander if we hear him not as a prodigy but as a serious improviser and composer who deserves to have the withering ear of a critic doubt him?

Photo: Stevie Chris / Courtesy of Mack Avenue

Alexander in 2022 is the real deal—a superb modern mainstream player who writes compelling themes and improvises in a captivating, orchestral style. On the trio-only tracks, you can hear a masterful sense of touch, as Alexander uses dynamic and texture as well as chops. “Angel Eyes” (not the standard tune from the 1940s or the John Hiatt song) showcases Alexander’s subtle touch as he “strums” chords beneath the melody, generating a polyrhythmic momentum not unlike what Aaron Parks and Brad Mehldau have introduced to the music. “On the Horizon” is a hugely appealing but unpredictable composition that gives Potter’s soprano a stately theme, under which Grenadier and Alexander play a countermelody in octaves. The tune is set to a swaying waltz time that rushes forward and backward so that the feeling of swing momentum is modern (somewhat unobvious) but not hard to feel in your body.

Hearing Alexander with a guitarist and horn in a more wide-open setting is delicious. “Rise Up” finds Hekselman starting things with a funky groove and a dirty tone, with Potter’s tenor joining in themeless dialogue. Alexander is game and soon joins in the jammy fun, with the eventually written theme being barely more than a quick riff, repeated in quick pairs. Things stay tonal, but there is little sense that the young man is afraid to let the performance fly. In contrast, the very next tune, the brief “Hesitation”, is a beautiful, simple song begging for lyrics. There is no improvisation, just a bit of embellishment, and that’s okay. Joey Alexander has little, if anything, to prove by the end of this mature (he is still 19) recording.

Listening to whom Joey Alexander is becoming made it hard for me to resist going back, as last, to listen to the recording he made when he was 11, 12, 14, and so on. That first record, My Favorite Things, could probably be used to embarrass some people on blindfold tests (“Is that Kenny Barron?” “No, it is an 11-year-old.”). It is breathtakingly accomplished for a child—not the usual flashy, speed-only playing that we might expect from a kid who hasn’t developed a sense of space or taste or listening to the band. But the ballads (“Lush Life”, “Over the Rainbow”) are more pretty than aching, and the challenging tunes are filled with little moments of classical-ish sounding contrary motion or other counterpoints that hit the ear as a different kind of showing off.

When he plays “Maiden Voyage” on his second recording, with Chris Potter joining on soprano saxophone, there is already progress, as young Alexander opens the tune with some free give-and-take and, once the familiar theme is stated, he dares to play it differently enough that he genuinely doesn’t sound like he’s just imitating a master. But on 2018’s Eclipse, his take on “Blackbird” can’t stand up to the intriguing versions we have heard from a mature Brad Mehldau, and his duet with Joshua Redman on the standard “The Very Thought of You” is professional without seeming special in any way. It’s still incredible that he is only 14, but at what point should we stop thinking about his age and start thinking about the art?

What Alexander had going for him all along, perhaps, was a sense that he knew what he wanted to become: a strong composer, a conceptual improviser, and a player who could credibly share a bandstand with the likes of Chris Potter. In 2022, his progress is palpable. He is not just stunning or awe-inspiring now. He is very very good. He is on his way. He is 19.

Photo: Royal Gilbert / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Nikki Yanofsky

Nikki Yanofsky is a trickier case, perhaps because being a young woman with incredible vocal chops is very different than having a penchant for bebop harmony on piano.

Yanofsky debuted a bit older than Alexander, but not much. She was just 12, and videos of her channeling Ella Fitzgerald in seemingly effortless choruses of scat singing were all over the internet. In 2010 at the age of 16, she made a small imprint beyond jazz when she sang “O Canada” (Yanofsky is from Quebec) on television at the Vancouver Winer Olympics. I interviewed her that year as her major label debut, Nikki, was released on Decca—and as she prepared for a gig at Dizzy’s, the club at Jazz at Lincoln Center. She was charming and open, admitting that she didn’t know much music theory and clearly wanting to note and respect her “jazz” influences, but wanting to be a singer who could go into any style.

Nikki mushed together jazz and Norah Jones-ish pop in a believable blend. Being a jazz singer in the second decade of the 21st century surely couldn’t just mean copying Ella Fitzgerald. But soon enough, Yanofsky channeled her talent toward purer pop. Quincy Jones produced 2014’s Little Secret was billed as a blend of jazz and pop, but in truth, it’s just soul-oriented pop with some horn blasts. Yanofsky’s voice sounded great (it always does), but the market wasn’t buying this kind of pop, at least not at the time.

In 2016, she released an EP, Solid Gold, that was more introspective, as if she were looking for the pop formula that might work for her. “Me, Myself & I”, for example, sounds like a piano-driven Adele song, and “Miss You When I’m Drunk” was a slightly more soulful track with a Sharon Jones old-school sound—piano, a syncopated backbeat in service of retro soul, the lyrics wryly confessional. Another famous producer: Wyclef Jean. Four years on and Yanofsky turned back to amped-up pop-soul with Turn Down the Sound.

Through these records, it’s hard to know who Yanofsky is as an artist. She’s an outstanding singer, but so what? What is her style? Where is her heart as a singer, as a storyteller?

Now we have the somewhat inevitable return to jazz with Nikki by Starlight. The 15 tracks here are all jazz standards associated with various iconic jazz singers: “Crazy He Calls Me” (Billie Holiday), “Comment Allez Vous” (Blossom Dearie), “Some Other Time” (Tony Bennett), and “Corvacado” (Astrud Gilberto), and others that you’ve heard often. The temptation, for me, was to be cynical about this recording. After a decade of trying to break into pop music using three or four borrowed styles, the prodigy was back to what had (kind of) worked: being a (still, at 28) young jazz singer channeling those early, old influences.

Nikki by Starlight is a fine record, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the promotional boast that it represents Yanofsky’s rethinking of these classics. This is not the Yanofsky equivalent of Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn – the instrumentation (rhythm section, horns, strings) is standard and the tempos and rhythmic approaches are “classic jazz”: swing, ballads, bossas. But the charm of Nikki’s “They Say It’s Spring”, including the second chorus of relaxed, unforced embellishment, is wonderful jazz singing. It’s relatively uncommon to hear a singer take on Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues”, with a punching arrangement that features a terrific Hammond organ solo. Better is a ballad version of “Some Other Time” that includes a few delicious chord substitutions and a bravely minimal version of “Comes Love” that uses a tasty horn section and some guitar/vibes touches that come from the George Shearing playbook.

I come away from Nikki by Starlight not blown away by the recording but thinking that Yanofsky’s “return to jazz” doesn’t seem like a cynical career move. She’s a better jazz singer now that she was on her debut and is better in all kinds of quiet ways. If this were her debut, it would be impressive and promising. And given that herky-jerky arc of her pop-aspirant last decade, this could be the start of something that builds on what makes her a terrific singer.

How Alexander and Yanofsky are the Same, How they Differ

Jazz singing is the trickiest, most vexing side of this great music. The boundaries for excellence can be prison walls—you seem to have to master the style of the legends (Ella, Billie, Sarah), and then, to grow as an artist, you have to batter those same walls down. Some idiosyncratic singers (Gretchen Parlato, Theo Bleckmann) sound like they were born outside the prison, but more of the greats (Wilson, Kurt Elling) are required to climb walls and then build their own castle beyond them.

Jazz instrumentalists must master history, but their stylistic, technical inheritance isn’t nearly as personal. The “jazz” audience tolerates instrumentalists veering off into different identities—think of how Brad Mehldau moves from a standards-oriented trio to an electronica project with Mark Guiliana to projects working with classical themes or progressive rock. As young jazz singers branch out, they are much more likely to be shackled a second time, judged by the metrics of pop music. When as big a jazz star as Diana Krall made an album of original songs that moved into indie-rock territory (The Girl in the Other Room, 2004, with lyrics by Elvis Costello), the market was lukewarm.

So, when Nikki Yanofsky ventured as a young woman into the realm of a pop-jazz blend, there wasn’t any room for error. While her pop singing was okay, the production and style were not good enough to sit on the charts next to Beyonce. She has moved back to mainstream jazz with Nikki by Starlight, but she spent the better part of a decade working in an area that didn’t develop her art. The new album is good because she has an unmistakable voice. It is, however, only a small step forward, not a rich fulfillment of early promise.

On the other hand, Joey Alexander has developed his craft on a slower, steadier path. Whether you consider it a temptation or a trap, Alexander was not about to make a recording aimed at the pop market. Instead, on recordings like Eclipse, he took a shot at a Beatles song but also worked out a program with six originals. Each album has nudged him along a path, daring him to live up to playing with luminaries such as Kendrick Scott and Chris Potter.

To my ears, Alexander is a more mature artist (and at a younger age) than Yanofsky. But it’s not a competition and hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. What they have in common may be easier to explain.

In an era when many critics complain that creative music is dominated by “jazz school” graduates who all sound the same, these two musicians sound more tied to tradition, more “samey” than the young players incubated in conservatories. The musicians mentored in jazz school by performers/professors like Ben Allison and Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, and Dave Douglas are hardly being turned into bebop robots. They get to grow out of the spotlight until they are closer to being ready to do original thinking on the bandstand.

Nikki Yanofsky and Joey Alexander are fine mainstream artists working with incredible tools at their disposal. But I can’t help feeling that the somewhat safe approach that each represents is the product of being forced to present their art before they had the confidence and imagination to escape the influences that they started out aping.