The other evening I had the opportunity to listen to one of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard in a comparatively small setting in downtown Toronto. What is all the more remarkable is that the set lineup was of music that I appreciate, but don’t much care for. Ella Fitzgerald. Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holliday. Like that. Music of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
Yet there I sat. Amazed. The vocals were rich. The vocals were authentic. The vocals indicated a depth of feeling, passion and understanding that one recognizes as going beyond simple skills to a depth of soul.
The woman who was singing is Nikki Yanofsky.
She is 19 years old.
Her breakout came at age 12, when she was a headliner at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
She is not a novelty act. Yanofsky is real.
She did “I Would Rather Go Blind,” a song that I’d thought was Rod Stewart’s from Never A Dull Moment (1972), but which I learned was Etta James’s. Her recording was done in 1967. But I’d only known of Stewart’s rendition, and it was one that was formative for me back then, back when high school sometime-could-have-been was seen with someone else.
Yanofsky, who has worked with people from Herbie Hancock to Phil Ramone, who has performed live with Stevie Wonder, who has Quincy Jones as the executive producer of an album that will be released in the fall, says that she wants to bring the music of Fitzgerald and the like to her generation.
Yet I wonder.
I wonder whether this is possible. Conceivable. Do 19-year-olds want to listen to music that has stood the test of time in an era where time is accelerated?
One thing that is interesting about Yanofsky is that while there are plenty of others who have vocal range—think of Joss Stone or Leona Lewis (both of whom have a few years on Yanofsky, but are still under 30)—there is very real passion that she evinces in her vocals. Passion is what we crave in music if it is to actually move us.
The conceit of this site is that “Rock and roll can change your life.”
But I would argue it can change your life only if you are younger than 30. Because it is when you are 15 or 19, when you are alone, listening to music, that there are certain artists who have an effect on you that is transformative. At that point in life you are still malleable. Still being created. And certain music can change what you are, what you become. You are falling in love. You are being heartbroken. You are on top of the world. You are at the deepest depths of despair. You are always being formed and reformed.
And there is the music.
We were told not to “trust anyone over 30” for socio-political reasons. But it probably has a lot to do with being 30 and pretty much set in our ways, no matter how flexible we want to claim that we are.
So I listened to Yanosky and was more marveled than moved. At least less moved than I would have been had I listened to her rendition of “I Would Rather Go Blind,” when I would hear “When the reflection of the glass that I held to my lips. . .revealed the tears that were on my face” and then had to go to high school the next day.