The Good: Wonderful vocals, Original works have great lyrics
The Bad: "Standards" do not fit with the rest of the album, Awkward arrangements
The Basics: For those looking for a fresh jazz vocal sound, Nikki provides a lot of promise, but does not let the artist truly shine.
A few years ago, I went on a car trip through Canada and I heard a song so many times that I became quite enamored with it, so much so that as soon as I returned home and could look the song and artist up, I bought the album on the strength of the one song. That, for those who are not familiar with my reviews and my album-buying methodology, was a huge departure from the norm for me. The song was "Necessary Evil" off of Nikki Yanofsky's album Little Secret (reviewed here!). And, after a few years of having that album on with surprising consistency - both in the car and at home - I decided it was time for something new for me from Nikki Yanofsky. So, I decided to pick up her album Nikki.
Right off the bat, it behooves me to state that there is nothing inherently wrong with Nikki. That said, Nikki is not my cup of tea because I am not the world's biggest fan of vocal jazz recordings and the album is split between Nikki Yanofsky covering jazz standards and other people's works and a handful of songs she co-wrote. The problem for me is one with the industry, more than with the album Nikki itself. The explosion of "reality music competition" shows on television and the popularity of Glee made for an obscene volume of cover songs hitting the marketplace over the last two decades. I've always been vastly more interested in musical artists, as opposed to performers and at this time, it seems like the key way vocal talents break into the market is through covering other people's works long enough to gain enough success that they can produce all of their own works. Nikki Yanofsky is well on her way to an album that is 100% hers, but Nikki is not that album.
Instead, Nikki features thirteen tracks with a runtime of 46:51 and Yanofsky was co-writer for six of the songs. While Nikki Yanofsky provides all of the primary vocals and did some of the arrangements and composed several of the songs on Nikki, she does not play any musical instruments on the album and she is not credited with producing. As a result, it is unclear how much of the overall work is the album Yanofsky wanted to create, as opposed to what she had to make to satisfy the studio and the marketing for the album. Yanofsky is still young; striving for commercial success early on is not a bad thing necessarily, but on Nikki, the contrast between the standards and songs Yanofsky is covering and the original works Yanofsky was directly involved with creating is quite noticeable. The works Yanofsky co-wrote are fresh, original, tread more toward jazz-pop and are, by far, the highlights of the album.
That said, on every track of Nikki, Nikki Yanofsky uses her absolutely incredible voice. On "First Lady," Yanofsky presents one of her most vocally-pure, soulful performances that is the model of range. When she is not trying to squeeze into others' notes and lyrics, Yanofsky takes her time to be expressive and heart-melting with her amazing soprano voice. Even on Yanofsky's version of "I Got Rhythm," which was troubling to me for the tempo (compared to every other version I had heard), Yanofsky manages to make every single word clear and crisp, which (as someone who has spent twenty years mumbling along to "Wonderwall" I can easily acknowledge) is no small feat. Nikki Yanofsky's vocals are beautiful and she has a great voice; perhaps she would have broken out in the U.S. had the airwaves not been stuffed by so many other vocalists from reality shows producing more pop-radio-friendly tracks.
Instrumentally, Nikki is exactly what one would expect from a modern jazz vocal album. Nikki Yanofsky is accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, guitars, drums and a few other brass and string instruments. The album is produced to promote Yanofsky's vocals to the forefront, with the instrumental accompaniment accenting her voice, never drowning it out. Even on the songs Yanofsky co-wrote, there are no breakout instrumental tunes that linger with the listener after the album is played.
On the other hand, for the original works on Nikki, Nikki Yanofsky illustrates an exceptional level of lyrical talent. Yanofsky manages to make a playful song out of the rather mundane act of running late with "Never Make It On Time." The song sounds downright cool the way Yanofsky sings "Never make it on time / I'm trying to get to you / Something just won't let me through / I don't know what I'm gonna do / Help me, please / 'Cause I can swim in a stream / And I can hear the clock chime / 'Cause I come in a bad dream / I'll never make it on time" ("Never Make It On Time"). She plays the lateness off with the yearning to connect and her first original track on the album comes off as explosively original after the standard that opens Nikki.
As well, on Nikki, Nikki Yanofsky illustrates a wonderful sense of poetry and imagery in the songs she co-wrote. She paints perfectly the mood of anticipation when waking from a dream with the lines "Where do I start now? / There's so many things to dream before the morning light / Sending my heart out" before contrasting it with the physical: "When the morning comes at last / There's so many thing to do before I lay down /Though it may be overcast / I can see a light that shines right through the darkest cloud" ("For Another Day"). For a young artist, it is clear that Nikki Yanofsky not only has something to say on Nikki, but she also has a talent for saying it!
Even on "Cool My Heels," which is a jazzy little number that sounds like something Ella Fitzgerald would have performed if it was available to her, Yanofsky makes a statement. She falls into the trap of many young artists by relying on an unfortunately predictable rhyme scheme - "It's like the garden and the apple tree / Same old temptation keeps a haunting me / Everybody's got something to say / But I'm the one that's got to pay some day" ("Cool My Heels") - it's hard to kvetch, given that Yanofsky was fifteen or sixteen when she wrote the song.
There is something funny about a Canadian jazz vocalist opening an album with "Take The 'A' Train" - a song about touring New York City - and the truth is, "Over The Rainbow" was pretty much played out long before Yanofsky got to it (it's hard to imagine what a fresh, different cover of the song would sound like - I suspect if I began to pitch it, someone would come up with an already-produced version in that genre), so Nikki is a tough sell, even for a debut album. But the moments where Yanofsky's original works are playing are enough to grab the ear and rivet the listener. The six original tracks are enough to justify listening to, if not buying, Nikki.
The best track is "For Another Day," the low point is "I Got Rhythm."
For other jazz albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Intimate Ella - Ella Fitzgerald
Oh My Nola - Harry Connick Jr.
Come Away With Me - Norah Jones
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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