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That Went Better Than Expected

As my wife will no doubt tell anyone who cares to listen, I’m always trying to break down the music I listen to. Not in terms of intentionally looking for huge flaws or amazing brilliances, but just applying my brain to it and commenting on said flaws/brilliances when they arise. It’s a side effect of my training – you spend several years learning how the nuts-and-bolts of music actually works in terms of structure and what said structural elements sound like, it’s inevitable to listen pretty deeply to most things you hear.

Now, when I happen to be listening to most of the pop radio stations, say, in the car, I tend to veer more towards the flaws side of the equation. The mass produced, 90% synthesized stuff that gets a lot of airtime tends to give me lots of fodder for that. It’s like asking a chef to comment on McDonald’s food. Of course the aural equivalent of cotton candy and greasy burgers supplies slightly more ammunition than a string orchestra. But I want to hear good stuff, and so when I do, it’s really exciting for me (for an example, the track ‘Same Love’ that Macklemore released not long ago was one of my favourite things – and I believe, one of the most important things – produced in music the past few years).

As a prelude to the main thrust of this post, anyone who reads this from Canada should remember the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. And if you watched literally any of it on TV, you heard that ‘I Believe’ song a number of times that is roughly equivalent to the lifetime of the dinosaurs (seriously, every time you cut to commercials, they played this thing – it got obnoxious really fast). The singer who performed it was the Canadian musician Nikki Yanofsky. She was 16 at the time, hails from Montreal, Quebec, and has done in general the kind of disgustingly young solo work that means she has earned more as a musician before she could vote than I will probably earn as a musician before I retire.

The generally-pervasive nature of that ‘I Believe’ single plus the hype that was run around how young and talented this singer was, plus the middling musical merit of the tune itself sort of made me go “Oh, okay, I guess that’s pretty cool. Good luck, and try not to be Bieber 2.0”.

I have never been more pleased to be wrong in my expectations.

She just released a new album (“Little Secret”), and it is killer. This women has the goods.

First off, not only was this gem produced by Quincy Jones (QUINCY JONES) in a fantastic studio, it covers a wide range of jazz stylings with the kind of vocal power that I absolutely love in a jazz performer. There’s some excellent heavy swing here, sharing airtime equally with funk-influenced tracks, a couple of great ballads, and a cute little electronically enhanced cover of the old standard ‘Jeepers Creepers’.

There are three big standout tracks of this album that you need to check out if you are at all into jazz music.

First is ‘Little Secret’, the title track. This is a kicking swing track, feature a low key, groovy opening that pretty soon punches up the intensity and gives her a great deal of room to flex the impressive range of vocal strength she has without covering the all-important swing feel. A cool tenor sax adds little dashes of colour to the choruses in classic style.

Second, ‘You Mean The World To Me’, a ballad in the tradition of Ella and Sarah Vaughan. In particularly, I adore the descending sequence pattern of the chorus, which flips through a very standard chord progression which nonetheless is not seen often nowadays in pop music and finds just the right mixture between sappy and playful to avoid being saccharine. She navigates the melody with dexterity and always feels that right amount of laid-back to make this a joy to listen to.

Lastly, don’t miss ‘Enough Of You’. It’s the kind of angry break-up song that is nonetheless a deal of fun to listen to. It doesn’t quite match the best break-up song in jazz/pop of the last few years (for that, please go listen to and have a laugh at the subversively joyful track ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’ by Michael Bublé; seriously, go do that now – you won’t regret it), but has precisely the right growl and grit in the right places. Mix that with a very heavy funk influence in the drums and baseline, and you have a kicking groove that doesn’t stop.

If you, like me, sometimes bemoan the one-dimensional pop recordings that flood the airwaves nowadays, please check out this performer – Nikki Yanofsky is the real deal who writes her own stuff, does homage to the greats of jazz, and has all the pipes necessary to suck you in and have a great time listening to her.

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