This week in Arts & Leisure: my feature on Nikki Yanofsky, a 16-year-old prodigy being upheld, in the general-interest press, as the new face of jazz singing. Perhaps you saw her belting “O Canada” at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics, or strutting the stage at the finale of this year’s Juno Awards.
My ambivalent take on Yanofsky arises partly from the terms of her success. Nostalgia and precocity are always salable commodities, and when they arrive in a single package, you’ve got the makings of a story. Which is fine, except when the elevation of a Nikki Yanofsky fuels public misperceptions about the nature of jazz singing.
Consider this typical response to her talent, an Arts Journal post whose first sentence reads “Can a 15-year-old singer save jazz?” The author, an experienced journalist, later wrote a follow-up in New York magazine, which honed in on the center of the young singer’s appeal:
Listen to Yanofsky’s rendition of Fitzgerald’s famous scat “Airmail Special” (when it was recorded for a 2007 Verve Records tribute album, Yanofsky became the youngest artist ever to appear on the label) or to her first full-length album, Ella … Of Thee I Swing: The tracks sound as if they were recorded by an artist 30 years older—60 years ago.
Is this really what we seek in a jazz singer? Well, yes, apparently many of us do. And in Yanofsky we have someone who has been training, like an Olympic hopeful, since her preadolescent years. (Canadians are better acquainted with this aspect of her rise; for an instructive taste, consult this clip of her with pianist Oliver Jones.)
In the piece, I attempted to establish a contrast between Yanofsky’s throwback style and the contemporary currents swirling around the modern jazz mainstream. There’s a small irony here, in that a singer like Gretchen Parlato or Sofia Rei Koutsovitis or even Esperanza Spalding often works a step or two outside the public’s perception of “jazz” (note the scare quotes). They aren’t singing like Ella, or Billie; they aren’t necessarily singing standards, either. And yet I’d argue that their efforts are just as true, maybe truer, to the spirit of the music.
We’ve been here before, as I imply in the piece, invoking this story by David Hajdu from about 10 years ago. Ostensibly a profile of Jane Monheit, then in the midst of her mass-market rollout, it’s also a meditation on some of these very same themes. Hajdu likens Monheit to Fitzgerald, less than approvingly, and tempers his appreciation for her gift with his skepticism of her artistry and maturity. Monheit insists that “the term ‘jazz singer’ defines only part of who I am.” (You’ll find Yanofsky saying almost exactly the same thing.) And at the time, Monheit’s favorite showpiece wasn’t a jazz standard, per se, but rather a plain old standard, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”
You know where I’m going with this. My morning with Yanofsky began on the set of the PIX-11 Morning News, where she performed that same number (accompanied by pianist Randy Ingram):
It’s a strong performance, no doubt. But like so much about Yanofsky, it feels calculated, put on. Not that I fault her for that, entirely. Leaving the studio, she was confronted by a pair of bedraggled autograph hounds, and a lone paparazzo. She was gracious with them, signing and posing, before she climbed into a black SUV. Off to save jazz -- or, more precisely, off to another media stop.