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Jazz singer gets fresh start... at age 20

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To say Nikki Yanofsky is a prodigy is an understatement.

At 12, the Montreal jazz-pop chanteuse became the youngest-ever headliner of the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival. On her 14th birthday, she kicked off a tour with famed composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch at New York City's Carnegie Hall. At 16, she became the voice of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games -- not to mention a household name -- thanks to her performances both the national anthem and I Believe, the Games' official theme song. A year later she performed with Herbie Hancock; last year, it was Stevie Wonder.

Now 20, Yanofsky has just released her second studio album, Little Secret, which was not only produced, but executively produced, by Quincy Jones.

The 81-year-old music legend and 27-time Grammy winner who helmed three of Michael Jackson's most iconic albums -- Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad -- has been a fan of Yanofsky since he first heard her sing six years ago. She performed at his house after meeting through a mutual friend.

"A year later, I randomly ran into him in Rotterdam, he asked me what I was doing that Friday and invited me to the Montreux Jazz Festival to perform," she says. "And the rest is history."

A self-described taskmaster in the studio, Jones demanded a lot from Yanofsky in terms of performances -- but she ran the show.

"He really encouraged me to go forth to what I was thinking of doing, rather than try to get me to conform to what's out there," she says. "One of the amazing things about Quincy is that he always pushes me to be real and to put out music that really represents me."

In many ways, Little Secret feels like a debut. The album's 12 tracks are polished, the performances confident. While her earlier releases -- 2008's Ella... Of Thee I Swing (her tribute to Ms. Fitzgerald) and 2010's Nikki -- may have had a hint of novelty owing to her age, Little Secret is the sound of a formidably talented singer coming into her own.

"I definitely consider Little Secret to be a coming-of-age album and one that really represents me as a musician and as a person," she says. "With this album, I really trusted my gut and it's the first time I wasn't willing to compromise musically. I'm so proud of it."

When you begin your career at the ripe old age of 12, a lot changes in eight years. Yanofsky's no longer a girl, and her music reflects that. "I feel like my voice has matured with age and so has my writing," she says. "I'm much more conceptually driven in my songs than I was before. Whenever I write, I always try to tell a story and now I always try to have a theme that runs through an entire song."

Most artists don't have such a public document of their formative years, but she's happy to have it. "It's nice to be able to go back to my very first record, Ella... Of Thee I Swing, and hear how young my voice sounds," she says. "It's hilarious -- I always say it sounds like I've sucked in some helium. I think it's also great because the public has really been on this journey with me from the beginning."

Born and raised in Montreal, Yanofsky grew up listening to Motown and classic rock. "I only really discovered jazz when I was told I would playing the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2006," she admits. "I looked up 'jazz' on iTunes, and Ella's name popped up."

Discovering she had a voice that could easily wrap around the standards, Yanofsky fell hard for the genre -- and she wants her peers to do the same. She proves that jazz doesn't need to be esoteric, imbuing it with enough pop sensibility to make it palatable for even the least adventurous listener.

"I want to bring jazz to a younger generation," she says. "That's why whenever someone asks me what type of album Little Secret is, I always say 'accessible jazz.' I definitely think people can relate to it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 G3

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