Nikki Yanofsky - Ella…Of Thee Swing (2009)

Nikki Yanofsky
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Fifteen year-old Nikki Yanofsky is precious. She's precious in the way that all barely adolescent voices with grown-up talents are, coaxing smiles and sweet applause out of precocious imitations of their elders. Michael Jackson did it by imitating Jackie Wilson and James Brown. Little Stevie Wonder did a killer Little Jimmie Scott impression before his voice changed. A 19 year old Aretha did a particularly fine Dinah Washington. After exploding unto the jazz world's stage with a pitch perfect copy of Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Airmail Special" on the Verve tribute We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Jazz in 2007, Nikki's been slowly building a very respectable career while also developing a voice more her own.

Fifteen year-old Nikki Yanofsky is precious. She's precious in the way that all barely adolescent voices with grown-up talents are, coaxing smiles and sweet applause out of precocious imitations of their elders. Michael Jackson did it by imitating Jackie Wilson and James Brown. Little Stevie Wonder did a killer Little Jimmie Scott impression before his voice changed. A 19 year old Aretha did a particularly fine Dinah Washington. After exploding unto the jazz world's stage with a pitch perfect copy of Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Airmail Special" on the Verve tribute We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Jazz in 2007, Nikki's been slowly building a very respectable career while also developing a voice more her own. The Canadian's already the youngest headliner in the history of the Montreal International Jazz Festival and has placed tunes on High School Musical 2 and Kareem Abdul Jabar's audio book, On The Shoulders of Giants (a cover of "Stompin' at the Savoy," with Will i. am and Herbie Hancock). The late 2008 release of Ella...Of Thee Swing, a live DVD/CD package of Nikki admirably tackling pop and jazz standards back when she was the tender age of 13, is an adorable introduction to a talent we'll be hearing for years to come.

Vocally, Yanofsky is a technical wonder with a slightly nasal, fluttery vibrato and a Broadway belter's panache. She performs with a confident wink and a coy smile familiar to anyone who's seen the character Baby June in Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy. Yanofsky is strongest when the songs are fun, light and windy with big band swing, cuts like Swingin' On The Moon, Flyin' Home and It Don't Mean A Thing(If It Ain't Got That Swing) allow Yanofsky to demonstrate her awesome scatting powers. In this regard, Nikki is studied and sometimes effortless, if only in her ability to so completely mimic Ella Fitzgerald, who always made the insurmountable look easy. When she's courageous, Yanofsky too doesn't break any sweats on challenging swing and big band material written for her great-grandmother's era. When she's not holding crowd-pleasing long notes or imitating old blues and jazz lady growls, Yanofsky also delivers promising traces of the unique phrasing and signature voice to come. At times, she reminds me of what I imagine a teenage Eva Cassidy must have once sound like.

The only weakness in these performances is one that only time can overcome, her inexperience. Covers of "Over the Rainbow" and "Lullaby of Birdland" are fine, but Yanofsky simply hasn't lived enough to sell some of these classics. Yanofsky somewhat acknowledges this truth herself before taking on "At Last," as a tribute to her dog, Hudson There is something unpalatable about hearing a 13 year-old trying to carry off the maturity of "You've Changed," with no understanding of how to interpret the heartbreaking lyric. And, as Katherine McPhee once famously demonstrated on American Idol, "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues" should never, ever be done cutely, no matter how technically awesome your gifts are. After hearing her sing in such grown-up tones, Yanofsky's little girl speaking voice too proves rather jarring during her brief between tune patter. It's only by sheer force of will that she completely nails the devastatingly mature, "Evil Gal Blues." Yet, if the scenery-chewing of "Evil Gal Blues" is any indication of what this girl can do at 13, I think a fresh disc of material is in order for the 15 year-old baby diva who'll soon have millions of future fans beckoning for more. Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
Choice Cut - Maysa - "Lovin' You Is Easy"

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