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Quincy Jones says Montreal's Nikki Yanofsky blew him away with live performance

May 12, 2014

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Music impresario Quincy Jones recalls being in his living room wearing a bathrobe and drinking a blueberry smoothie when he heard prodigious Montreal vocalist Nikki Yanofsky sing live for the first time.

It was about six years ago and Jones — producer of Michael Jackson's chart-smashing albums "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" — had connected with Yanofsky through a mutual friend after learning she was performing tunes by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie using his arrangements.

"It blew me away," the 27-time Grammy Award winner said in an interview.

"You know it right away if it is there and if it's not there. The first four bars, you know what's up."

Jones said he also knew immediately that he wanted to work with the internationally acclaimed jazz-pop singer with the jaw-dropping vocal range and sensational scatting abilities.

And he did, first at a jazz festival in Europe, and now on her newly released album, "Little Secret."

Jones executive produced the 12-track studio release, and it has his master touch all over it — from the slick arrangements to samples of his 1962 hit "Soul Bossa Nova" and even snippets of his speaking voice.

Fusing jazz and pop, the album is a vintage funk-soul offering with horn beats and a feel reminiscent of the works of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

Yanofsky said she was "a huge Quincy fan" growing up and has fond memories of dancing to the music of legendary artists he's worked with, including Jackson, Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

"I have just so many memories of learning these songs and being mesmerized by the arrangements and the complexity of all the arrangements. He has an ability to take something so complicated and make it accessible and make it feel like you could just listen to it without thinking about it too much.

"But then when you get in-depth and really look at it, it's like, 'How did you do that?' It's nuts!"

At 20, Yanofsky naturally comes across on the album — and in person — as more mature than when she first gained attention as a brace-faced teen muscling her way through classics including Fitzgerald's "Airmail Special."

The Juno-nominated prodigy — who has performed with greats including Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder — said she wanted to "bridge jazz with popular culture in a new way that hadn't really been done in a while."

"I just wanted to find a new way to bring it to my generation."

Yanofsky — who is also well known for singing "I Believe," CTV’s broadcast theme for the 2010 Winter Olympics — said she focused on melody first and lyrics second. It's advice she got from Jones during the recording process, which took place over two years in Montreal and California.

"I wanted to have something that was happy and fun and people just wanted to listen to and enjoy and not think about too much."

Jones liked that Yanofsky "doesn't categorize music" — a sentiment the prolific producer seems to embrace himself. Yanofsky said Jones stressed to her that: "Good music is good music, it doesn't matter what it is. If it makes you feel something, if it makes you want to move, that's what it's all about."

Jones admitted he can be a taskmaster in the studio in an effort to draw that emotion from his artists.

"In a process of an album you become everything, because situations change every day. And it's always a question of: 'How long do I make her keep going at the mike or do we take a break?' A big decision, huge decision.

"It's like telling Sinatra or Ray Charles to jump without a net, to take a chance, you know?"

Jones then recalled the time he made Jackson stretch his vocal range on "She's Out of My Life."

"I said, 'Michael, now I want you to do a soft, soulful murmur downstairs here.' (He said) 'But I've never done that before.' I said, 'That's why I want you to do it.'"

"A very powerful song (written by) Tommy Bahler. I was saving that for Sinatra and I said, 'No, I'm going to do it with Michael, because he's never experienced a relationship song,'" added Jones, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year.

"And every time he (sang it he) cried, so I just left it on the record. He cried, because you could feel it."

Jones said he plans to collaborate with Yanofsky again, and the two are due to tour in Europe together this summer.

"I just love being with this guy," she said, squeezing his arm while sitting beside him on a couch in a downtown hotel.

Jones said Yanofsky has "come a long, long way and she's got a long, long way she's going to go. But you hear that the first time you hear her, you know. She's not going to stop here, she's going to keep evolving, and that's important. Very important.

"You don't want to get stuck on one thing, you know. No, that's not her trip."

His advice to her during that journey?

"Don't stop till you get enough," said Jones with a laugh. "It's true. If you empty the cup every time it comes back twice as full, and she gives it up every time she goes for it. I love that. I love that. That's real.

"Everything is important and get in the habit of doing everything you do very, very, very well, and she's there. She's there."

— Follow @victoriaahearn on Twitter.

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Source: Canadian Press DataFile

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