Friday, August 19, 2016

The Surprising, Amazing, Debut Of Nikki Yanofsky: Ella . . . Of Thee I Sing

The Good: Wonderful vocals, Decent musical accompaniment
The Bad: A couple of interpretations that are technically-impressive, but mortgage the emotion of the lines
The Basics: Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing was a smart debut album to show off the innate talents of Nikki Yanofsky and sets the bar high for her original works.

I have come to the conclusion that I have a weird relationship with the musical works of Nikki Yanofsky. After all, having reviewed over 850 albums, I have a pretty long record of appreciating the works of artists, as opposed to performers. In monthlong studies of the works of Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald and a sole Roberta Flack album, I developed an appreciation for original works by musical artists. Singer-songwriters tend to impress me far more than those who simply sing the words of other people. As a result, no one is more surprised than I am that, out of the three full-length albums by Nikki Yanofsky, the one that is highest rated is her cover album. Nikki Yanofsky, before she started composing her own, original, musical works, performed a series of cover songs for her debut concert album, Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing.

I have been a fan of the works of Nikki Yanofsky for a few years now, when I was blown away by her single "Necessary Evil" from Yanofsky's album Little Secret (reviewed here!). Fortunately, my appreciation of Yanofsky's work could not be written off as a stupid crush - I heard "Necessary Evil" more than twenty times before ever seeing the music video! Nikki Yanofsky is incredibly talented and that talent is evident immediately on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing.

Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is a recording of Yanofsky's concert performance by the same name and it is worth noting that this review is of the album only. After listening to the album a couple times, I tracked down a video of the Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing concert performance and the two experiences are very different. The concert video of Nikki Yanofsky's Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is arguably one of the most unsettling hours of television I have ever watched - the powerful vocals of Nikki Yanofsky paired with visuals of a 13 year-old in braces bouncing around (smiling after singing a line about dying, for example) is an almost impossible-to-reconcile experience. On its own as an audio recording, though, Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is not only an impressive debut for the young performer, but a legitimately wonderful musical experience.

With eighteen songs, clocking out just over an hour, Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is a collection of songs that had been performed famously by Ella Fitzgerald. Outside "Swingin' On The Moon," Nikki Yanofsky performs songs previously covered by Fitzgerald on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing. On Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing, Nikki Yanofsky provides all of the vocals, while accompanied by a band; she does not play any instruments, nor was she involved in the production of the album.

The instrumental accompaniment for Nikki Yanofsky on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is good. Yanofsky is accompanied by a full jazz band on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing and they are more than competent to play the tunes made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps what is most musically impressive is how generous Yanofsky is in letting her accompanists play. On "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," Yanofsky gives time and space for multiple performers to play solos. Beyond the occasional solos, the music has a very typical jazz band sound to it. Instrumentally, the mambo for "Relax Max" is a real standout for the band. The album is produced so that the vocals come to the forefront of the audio experience.

What makes Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing so impressive are the vocals of Nikki Yanofsky. From the very first song, Nikki Yanofsky illustrates vocal abilities far beyond those of the average teenager. On "Lullaby In Birdland," Yanofsky hits all of the high notes and displays amazing lung capacity. Seriously, after listening to the first song, one might guess that as a teenager, Nikki Yanofsky was a track star based on how long she can hold notes. But most of Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is not slow at all. Yanofsky sings fast and precisely on "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

Range and vocal power are at the forefront of Yanofsky's skills on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing. In her youthful voice, Yanofsky declares that if Ella Fitzgerald did not perform the song "Swingin' On The Moon" (I could not find any evidence that Fitzgerald ever recorded a version of the song with a cursory search), she should have, but then she illustrates why the song would have been an amazing fit for the venerable performer. Yanofsky sounds like she is channeling Fitzgerald when she makes leaps from her lowest register into full-on soprano vocals. Yanofsky is amazing with her ability to make such register transitions.

Not all of the songs or interpretations on Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing are winners. "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" is terribly repetitive, but given that Yanofsky had nothing to do with writing the songs, this is not at all her fault. Yanofsky's rendition of "Old MacDonald" is absolutely disturbing, especially as an audio recording without the visual concert experience. Nikki Yanosky performs "Old MacDonald" at a speed that is mind-numbing; she sings so fast that the only note I could make on how well she articulated each word in the song was "wow." Yanofsky is absolutely amazing with her technical ability on "Old MacDonald," but the song itself is just troubling to listen to in her rendition.

Even so, virtually every potential negative remark one could make about Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is more than balanced out by the positive elements of it. The speed-singing on "Old MacDonald" does not diminish how impressive Nikki Yanofsky's range is on the song. Yanofsky performs "You've Changed" with such a powerful voice that does not reveal the singer's youth relative to the lyrics. Despite the weird dedication to her dog on "At Last," Nikki Yanofsky still exhibits amazing, soulful, vocals on the track. The raw charisma on "A Tisket, A Tasket" is fun as well.

Ultimately, Ella . . . Of Thee I Swing is an impressive jazz album and it foreshadows the potential Nikki Yanofsky possesses . . . even if she has not yet successfully, consistently, translated it into her own, original works.

The best song is "Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues," the worst track is "The Way You Look Tonight," which (admittedly, I am inherently biased against given the strong connection I have to James Darren's version) was presented with the lyrics going too fast, lacking time to reflect upon them.

For other albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Nikki - Nikki Yanofsky
25 - Adele
Emerald - Dar Williams


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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