The Montreal Gazette - June 28, 2021
Cool 12-Year-Old Channels Aretha, Ella
“There is no way a 12-year-old can
possess pipes like an Ella or an Aretha.
But she does.”
on jazz fest prodigy Nikki Yanofsky
It’s a little bizarre. No, it’s a lot bizarre. Someone
is channeling Ella Fitzgerald and doing a pitch-perfect knock-off
of her scat classic Airmail Special. But the only other person
in the room is a gum-chewing 12-year-old, about 4-feet-8 and
weighing no more than 75 pounds, a kid who would appear to be
far more familiar with a seesaw than scat.
Nah, can’t be.
Two minutes later, someone is channelling Aretha Franklin and
doing the sort of soulful belting of the R&B anthem Respect
that would do Aretha really proud. And again the only other
person in the room is the gumchewing kid. OK, so what gives?
The 12-year-old is Nikki Yanofsky. This is no smoke-and-mirrors
prank. It is her singing. The kid has to have entered into a
pact with a higher - or lower - being. There is
no way a 12-year-old can possess pipes like an Ella or an Aretha.
But she does.
There is a richness and a maturity and a heart and an effortlessness
that divas twice or three times her age would kill for. Nikki,
as she is billed, has been blowing everyone away of late. She
did her first pro gig at Club Soda in February, when she joined
the Porn Flakes on stage. The audience and the performers were
quite simply stunned.
She caught the attention of TV host Eric Salvail, who had her
sing on his show On n’a pas toute la soirée. Again,
she left the host and an estimated TV audience of 1.2 million
Following her performance, Nikki was featured on the front page
of Journal de Montréal and comparisons were being drawn
with Céline Dion.
Tomorrow night at 8, Nikki will really be in the spotlight,
on the Alcan Stage at the Montreal International Jazz Festival,
prior to the Neville Brothers blowout at the nearby General
Motors Stage. She will then return at 10:30 p.m. for another
set. And you’re probably figuring the kid’s nerves
are a jangled mess.
“Should I be nervous?” she innocently asks. “OK,
maybe I’ll have a few butterflies a minute or so before
I go on stage. But, really, this is nothing new for me.”
Don’t confuse Nikki’s nonchalance for cockiness.
According to her mother, Elyssa, Nikki popped out of the womb
and started singing show tunes shortly thereafter: “I
don’t know where it came from. I’m convinced someone
else lives in her body.” Her dad, Richard, an accomplished
pianist, is still in awe: “It’s uncanny. I’ve
been exposed to musicians and singers all my life and, not because
she’s my daughter, but I’ve just never heard anyone
like her. She’s like some kind of freak musical genius.”
Jazz-fest boss André Ménard and veteran promoter
Rubin Fogel believe she is destined for the bigs. Record companies
are beating down her door. Some say she’s possessed. Nikki
likes to crack that she shares her body with a 45-year-old R&B
phenom. “OK, I guess you could say I’m blessed.
I guess you could also say that it’s probably not fair
that I have this talent. My life is great as it is. I have everything
I could possibly want.”
Her dad notes that, unprompted, Nikki has donated half her first
paycheque - $300 - to the Montreal Children’s
Still, Nikki concedes her success hasn’t gone over well
with some classmates. One stuck gum in her hair - three
times. “Girls can be nasty,” she says. “That’s
why I prefer my guy friends. They’re nicer,more mature.”
On a blackboard in the family’s Hampstead kitchen is thismessage:
“Only two more days.” And you’re probably
figuring his is a reference to her jazz fest gig. “Wrong,”Nikki
chimes. “It’s about me going to camp in two days.
I’m more looking forward to that than the festival. Really.”
Nikki has two teen brothers. Like her parents, she insists they’re
supportive but they don’t push her. “Actually, they
get annoyed because I just can’t stop singing.They tell
me to shut up.”
True, the kid can’t stop, belting Chain of Fools, then
At Last, Ain’t No Mountain and following it up with a
rendering of Over the Rainbow that could break the coldest heart
and leave Judy Garland spinning.
Nikki lists Ella, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder and Sarah Vaughn
among her favourites. Quick, try to find another 12-year-old
who is wild about Holiday. “It’s the music I’ve
grown up with.” Nikki says, still chomping on that gum.
The plan is for Nikki to cut a disc in the fall. “I have
much to learn. I know I can improve my range, but I have to
work at it.”
Nikki recently began taking singing lessons with Nancy Martinez,
an accomplished crooner in her own right. “I have never,
ever seen someone as young and seasoned as her. I can’t
imagine what kind of talent she will have in five or 10 years.
The sky is the limit. Best thing about her is that she is as
nice, as down to Earth as anyone I’ve ever met. Frankly,
she’d be just as happy to sing in her bedroom as on any
Taking her cue, Nikki goes to her room to do an inspired version
of I’ve Got the Music in Me.
No doubt about that.