When Nikki Yanofsky first hit the Canadian jazz scene, it was hard not to be impressed. Here was this precocious 13-year old from Montreal, still in braces, singing Ella Fitzgerald tunes with the same swing, verve and effortless technique as the original. "Prodigy" barely began to describe it.
As her career progressed, her chops improved, but her tendency to imitate stayed in place. By 16, she'd added note-perfect renditions of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin hits to her repertoire, but the wow factor was gone. Without a sound to call her own, Yanofsky risked ending up just a very accomplished cover-band singer, which was not what she wanted to be. She wanted her own voice to be as strong as her influences.
Hence, Nikki 2.0: the relaunch.
"I'm 19 now," she says, her voice bright and bubbly over the phone. "As you mature, you kind of find yourself as a person. Not to say that I've completely done that, because I'm still young. But in terms of who I am as an artist, I've definitely found my sound, and I've definitely found what I represent."
What she represents is jazz – not some old-school, swing-it-like-they-did-in-the-1940s version, but a sound that respects the music's roots while offering a more contemporary feel. She had help, of course, particularly from producer Quincy Jones.
"He's been mentoring me since I was 14," she says. One of the most important lessons he taught her was that it's important to embrace your influences, and also to be true to yourself. "I love all music, and if I could sing everything, I would," she admits. "But I also have to know what my strong suit is, which is definitely jazz."
With Jones's help, Yanofsky put together a new quintet, made up of similarly young and accomplished musicians. They've already got an album, Little Secret, in the can, and Yanofsky will be taking them on an introductory tour across Canada in the next two weeks.
"It's going to be so much fun," she says of the tour. "It's the first time I'm going by myself, and I'm going to have an awesome band with me. They're all Berklee [College of Music in Boston] graduates, they're all my age, so I guess it's going to be the equivalent of a college road trip."
It has been two years since Yanofsky last made the jazz-festival circuit, then in support of her debut studio album, Nikki. "What's so great about this whole thing is, my last album was [made] before I found an original sound for myself," she says. "I was doing mostly covers. I had some original songs, but they were really straight-up pop.
"This album is actually more jazz than my last one, even though there aren't standards on it, because the original songs always incorporate something of jazz," she adds. "My goal was that if I sang it a cappella, it would sound like an old song, but when you put it into the arrangement, it would sound current. Which is what it does."
The album was in the mixing stage when Yanofsky spoke, and she hopes to have it out later this year, though she hesitates to offer a specific date. "You'll be hearing things pretty soon," she says.
Even so, she's happy to have had the break between her first album and her second, because it will make the change in style seem more natural.
"It's almost like my audience and the fans are on this jour-ney with me, like they're part
of it," she says. "It's not like
I've just gone into hiding and come out a completely differ-
ent person. I'm the same per-son – I've just grown. And they're going to hear that on this album."
Nikki Yanofsky plays the Ottawa Jazz Festival Monday, the Toronto Jazz Festival Tuesday, the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival Thursday, the International Victoria Jazzfest Friday, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival Saturday and the
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, July 4-6. For more information, go to www.nikkionline.ca.