135 Minutes With Nikki Yanofsky

Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images

As soon as Nikki Yanofsky sits down at the table in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s imperial spot overlooking Central Park, she takes the menu, says she’s starving, warns that she doesn’t have good table manners (“You’ll see: I can make crumbs out of apples”), announces that she’ll want dessert, and otherwise yaks away. “I know, I talk very fast,” she declares. “I call it ‘Nikkanese.’ That’s how I do my scatting.”

Scatting—singing nonsense syllables to jazz music—doesn’t usually appear in the lexicon of a girl who just turned 16. But Yanofsky sounds less like a teenager than like, well, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s no exaggeration. 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.

Anyone watching the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics got a sense of this when Yanofsky belted out a jazzed-up version of “O Canada.” That was the only time since she began performing in 2006, she claims, that she has ever really been nervous. “I was shaking,” she says. “I said to the guys who were with me, ‘In five seconds, the whole world will know who I am.’ Afterward, I cried for twenty minutes, I was so overwhelmed. My whole life changed.” Now she is preparing for her Stateside launch. Yanofsky’s first U.S. album—Nikki, a mix of standards like “I Got Rhythm,” as well as new numbers she co-wrote—will be launched here at Dizzy’s on May 4. It will be followed, in June, by a PBS special called Nikki Yanofsky: Live in Montreal, her hometown.

A perky, astonishingly talented Quebecois import with a voice like a velvet clarion: We have been here before. Like Céline Dion, Yanofsky can belt, croon, and purr, flawlessly. But there is something immediately disarming, almost puppyish, about Yanofsky, even as her musical taste is more sophisticated (or less Vegas) than Dion’s. In any case, she steers away from any direct comparisons. “I don’t know her,” Yanofsky says of Dion, “but we have met, and she’s the nicest girl.”

Although Yanofsky’s father plays the piano and has a band, and her mother calls herself a “closet singer,” they owned just one jazz record, Ella and Louis, the 1956 album pairing Fitzgerald and Armstrong, as Yanofsky was growing up. Yanofsky picked up jazz at 11, when one Friday her vocal coach gave her a recording of “Airmail Special” to try. By Monday, she’d not only nailed it but also found her musical métier. She quickly became a phenom in Canada, and has attracted fans like Tony Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch. It was Hamlisch, the legendary composer-conductor-pianist, who, in 2008, brought her to U.S. stages. She sang at Carnegie Hall on her 14th birthday. (The audience sang “Happy Birthday” back. “That was a good birthday present,” she says.)

Over the last two years, Yanofsky (accompanied by her parents) has kept up a heavy tour schedule—Japan, South Korea, Turkey—all while trying to stay on top of school from afar. “I’m in grade ten at St. George’s School, and I go when I’m not on tour,” she says, which is about once a week. So far she hasn’t needed a tutor and has been able to maintain an 86 average. “My parents don’t push me; it’s because I want it so badly,” Yanofsky explains. “Music makes me feel so much, music makes me feel so good.”

Soon after the waiter clears her onion soup and macaroni and cheese, she’s bopping to the brassy sounds of the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Dressed in a black net top over a gray tee and white jeans, Yanofsky alternately claps, plays the table like a drum, and sits up straight to watch, occasionally twirling her curly brown hair. When the bandleader calls for audience participation, her voice rings out clearly.

Yanofsky’s new album contains strains of R&B, soul, and rock, as well as some surprise vocalese: Her version of “Take the A Train” includes a bit Yanofsky wrote about the theater and shopping, her other favorite activity (since arriving in town this morning, she’s already bought two headbands, a T-shirt, and a fancier top on a whirlwind trip through Soho). She is quick to point out that she’s not a jazz evangelist—“I’m not a jazz singer, I’m just a singer”—but when the 89-year-old Candido Camero unexpectedly joins the stage at Dizzy’s, Yanofsky is beside herself. Camero introduced the conga drum to jazz and played with Dizzy Gillespie himself. He’s now slowed by arthritis, but when his bandaged fingers start to hit the congas, his face breaks into a smile of delight.

Yanofsky pulls out her BlackBerry to take Camero’s picture. Moments later, she leans over, points to her phone, and says, “I’m letting my friends listen. They love it.”

It’s 9 p.m., and the crowd for the 9:30 set is waiting to get in. Yanofsky has one more thing in mind. Hurrying across the room, she introduces herself to the band’s drummer, Jake Goldbas, and they exchange contact information with a promise to talk about collaborating. She is only in New York for three days, and isn’t wasting any time.

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135 Minutes With Nikki Yanofsky