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 flabbergasted.

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 Hospital.

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 stage.

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.

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