One does not interview Quincy Jones so much as soak him up. At 81, the charismatic jazz and pop music icon sits content on a hotel-room couch, which he shares with Montreal ingenue singer Nikki Yanofsky. He’s telling stories and taking off on illuminating tangents.
“We recorded Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On in 1955 with Big Maybelle, but then Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it two years later and became a legend,” he recalls, shaking his head. “She was a junkie, you know, Big Maybelle,” he continues. “Really?” says Yanofsky, wide-eyed. “I didn’t know that.” To which Jones replies, “Yep, she was from Cleveland,” as if those two things were connected, and perhaps they were.
Jones then shakes his head and smiles. “It’s amazing how some music covers all time,” he says. Yanofsky, his 20-year-old protégé, sighs contentedly – “Yeah” – as they clasp hands in agreement, as if grandfather with granddaughter.
It’s a trip to be in the same room with these two. Not only do they share the secret language of the jazzbos – they trade scats and melodies wordlessly in reference to new songs and old – they seem absolutely enchanted with each other. Jones tells a story about the making of Michael Jackson’s landmark Thriller album, and the culling of the songs involved with the crafting of that masterpiece.
“From 800 songs, we get nine,” he says. “And then we took the four weakest of those out. Michael Sembello’s Carousel we traded for Human Nature, and we wrote Pretty Young Thing, Beat It and The Lady in My Life, which turned the album upside down. We put those next to Billie Jean and Thriller and Don’t Stop, and it was over,” he says with enthusiasm and pride. “Oh-ver,” he continues smoothly, and then again with emphasis: “Over!”
With that, he bops Yanofsky’s knee with his fist – with care, as if he were testing a kettledrum. She smiles and glows, and when I ask if Jones is always like this, she nods. “It’s overwhelming to think about what he’s done,” she says. “The stories, everything, it’s wild – there’s a different one everyday.”
This day, the pair are in town drumming up interest for Little Secret, Yanofsky’s big, classy and rhythmic sophomore studio album of jazzy Winehouse-style pop and contemporary balladry. Fame came to Yanofsky thanks to her precocious ability as a child to swing, scat and soar pitch-perfect like an Ella incarnate. No longer a teenager, she has switched from standards to co-writing almost all the tunes of Little Secret, including the album’s romping opener Something New, which cheekily incorporates elements of Jones’s 1962 hit, Soul Bossa Nova.
“That was my tribute to Quincy,” Yanofsky explains. “It was my way of saying thank you.”
Now the mentor, Jones met the perky singer when she was 14. He proclaimed her “the future of jazz,” but it was another legendary music man (the late Phil Ramone) who produced her 2010 studio debut, Nikki.
Jones signed her to his management company last year, but for Little Secret he was not exactly her bossa nova. He is credited as the album’s executive producer, more of an advisory role. He suggested a horn move here and a groove change there. It was also his idea for Yanofsky to use her own band instead of hiring sidemen.
“We wanted to get a consistent sound,” she says.
“A personal sound,” he adds.
“Right,” she agrees. “This is a coming out for me. A coming of age.”
Jones produced (and is featured in) the excellent new documentary Keep on Keepin’ On, about legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and a blind piano prodigy, Justin Kaulflin. Terry was a hero to a young Jones, and when the film is brought up in our interview, he tells a story about Terry instructing him on how to play the trumpet without having his upper lip bleed. “It changed everything,” Jones recalls, lost in the memory.
The pause in the conversation gives the label publicist just enough time to step and point to his watch. The interview is over, but before I have time to thank them, Jones and Yanofsky are back in their own little world. When he tells her he would love to hear her sing I’m Beginning to See the Light (from 1963’s Ella and Basie!, a record on which Jones provided arrangements), she chirps back, “I would love to sing the whole album for you.”
Jones begins to bop and pow the groove out loud, and when Yanofsky begins to sing, he shouts, “We’re gonna make Ella shake her booty tonight!” As I leave the room, I hear the maestro tell the upstart chanteuse about Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan forgetting lyrics back in the day. Yanofsky laughs. They go on, jazz goes on – it’s a joyous, melodious continuum.