New York Stories (Sunnyside Records)

Judy Niemack

Released August 17, 2018

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review




New York City is the center of many worlds, the jazz world being one of them. Musicians have always felt the pull of the Big Apple. The depth of talent, competition, and energy have made the City the epicenter of growth in the music. Vocalist Judy Niemack’s improvisation teacher Warne Marsh told her that she had to go and, once she did, she never looked back.
Niemack’s experiences, and friendships created, in New York have shaped her career and life. One of the most important friendships turned out to be that of the great pianist, composer and arranger Jim McNeely. Niemack’s new recording with McNeely, New York Stories, shows the depth of their musical and personal affinity as they present pieces they arranged together over the years, and, finally, have recorded together, along with the Danish Radio Big Band.
When Niemack first arrived in New York, she lived in the guest room of saxophonist Ted Brown on Long Island before finding an apartment in the Bronx. Niemack then began to jump headlong into the local scene.
One of the first musicians she met was McNeely, who could be heard in many groups across the City, including Stan Getz’s ensemble and the Vanguard Orchestra. He heard her perform alongside Marsh at the saxophonist’s Village Vanguard residency. They struck up a fast friendship. McNeely became a sort of big brother figure to Niemack, always looking out for her and her best interests.
McNeely would go on to be musical director and arranger for the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. He was able to get Niemack invited to work on projects in 1993 and 2001. The first focused on the music of Thelonious Monk, while the other was focused on her lyrics on jazz compositions of various composers. For both projects, McNeely made sure that Niemack was involved in the arranging process. Aware of Niemack’s classical training, McNeely treated her voice as another instrument in the band, always making sure that she could handle his demands (she always said “yes”). Though the concerts were successes, the pieces were never recorded until now.
Niemack relocated to Europe in 1992 and has been teaching at the Jazz Institute of Berlin for a number of years. Colleague and trumpet player Gerard Presencer arranged for a project for Niemack and the Danish Radio Big Band in 2013. Because McNeely had led the Danish Radio Big Band from 1998 until 2002, taking the baton from the late, great Bob Brookmeyer, the Danes were only too happy to have McNeely collaborate on the project. The two old friends were finally able to record their beloved big band charts.
The program begins with Jeanfrançois Prins’s “New York Stories,” a bluesy, noir-ish swinger with Niemack’s lyrics that capture the post 9/11 New York City. The effervescent “Suddenly” is a take on Monk’s “In Walked Bud” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks. Having first performed Pat Metheny’s “Talk Awhile” wordlessly at the Pori Jazz Festival in 1982, Niemack received Metheny’s blessing to write lyrics and had the chance to record a wonderful version here. Niemack’s lyrics help highlight the tricky nature of “A Crazy Song to Sing,” a fabulous McNeely arrangement of Monk’s “Misterioso.” Niemack’s lyrics for “I Should Have Told You Goodbye” (a take on Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud”) are appropriately about relationships but not those as loving as that of hers with McNeely, who provides some fascinating spots to feature Niemack’s voice with the ensemble.
Inspired by jazz music of the late 1980s, Niemack focuses on Michael Brecker’s performance on Don Grolnick’s “Talking To Myself” to inform her lyrics for “Straight Up To The Light.” McNeely’s powerful arrangement underlines the beautiful message of Sting’s “Fragile”; McNeely’s Gil Evans-like restraint makes Monk’s “’Round Midnight” a lushly, evocative performance. The program concludes with another side of Monk, a brassy, ebullient version of the pianist’s “Well You Needn’t” entitled “It’s Over Now.”
Relationships, whether with places or people, are instrumental in shaping a person. Judy Niemack found inspiration from the great city of New York and one of the City’s most talented musicians, Jim McNeely. New York Stories is a fine summation of their longtime friendship and exquisite work together. 

Track Listing:

1. New York Stories (Jeanfrançois Prins & Judy Niemack) 09:39

2. Suddenly (In Walked Bud) (Thelonious Monk & Jon Hendricks) 06:58

3. Talk Awhile (It’s Just Talk) (Pat Metheny & Judy Niemack) 07:03

4. A Crazy Song To Sing (Misterioso) (Theloniuos Monk & Judy Niemack) 11:19

5. I Should Have Told You Goodbye (Daahoud) (Clifford Brown & Judy Niemack) 08:22

6. Straight Up To The Light (Talking To Myself) (Don Grolnick & Judy Niemack) 09:21

7. Fragile (Sting) 06:04

8. Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk, Cootie Williams & Bernie Hanighen) 09:04

9. It’s Over Now (Well You Needn’t) (Thelonious Monk & Mike Ferro) 06:41


Jim McNeely: arranger, conductor
Judy Niemack: vocals

Danish Radio Big Band

Anders Gustafsson (1st)
Christer Gustafsson (2nd)
Thomas Kjaergaard (3rd)
Mads La Cour (4th)
Lars Vissing (5th)

Vincent Nilsson (1st)
Steen Nikolaj Hansen (2nd)
Peter Jensen (3rd)
Annette Saxe (4th)
Jakob Munck Mortensen (5th)

Nicolai Schultz (1st alto)
Peter Fuglsand (2nd alto)
Hans Ulrik (1st tenor)
Frederick Menzies (2nd tenor)
Anders Gaardmand (baritone)

Rhythm Section:
Per Gade (guitar)
Nikolaj Bentzon (piano)
Kaspar Vadsholt (bass)
Søren Frost (drums)

Recorded November 5 – 8, 2013 in Studio 3 of the Danish Brodcasting Corporation, by Lars C. Brunn
Post production 2017 – 2018, at Greve Studio, Berlin, by Jeanfrançois Prins

Produced by Gerard Presencer

Engineer: Volker Greve

Photography by Christopher Drukker


Trust Judy Niemack to banish blues, blahs and social despair. Sounding fresh as her debut with Warne Marsh in 1978, this sunny vocalist of pinpoint articulation, exuberant scat and riveting vocalese soars from aerie to peak on Jim McNeely’s catchy charts, brimming with vitality and subtle quotes, all navigated with cool aplomb by the Danish Radio Big Band. This singer’s singer flies with boundless joy in cozy unison with reeds or trumpets, her moods ranging from warmly confiding to radiantly bantered free fours with Hans Ulrik’s tenor and Per Gade’s guitar. She jimmies the DNA of “’Round Midnight” and strikes lightning on the eerily unfolding “Misterioso.” After scatting it for years, she wrote the lyric quickly, but takes her sweet time to lift us into the ozone. Her luminous lyrics also speak pitch-perfect politically. A post-9/11 rap on Jeanfrançois Prins’ “New York Stories” urges a Jon Hendricks-like wry toughness to beat The Big Apple’s grinding toll. Niemack gamely engages listeners on “Talk Awhile (It’s Just Talk)” with “people coming together, every race and every style” to “find some better way to be free.” A recurring mantra—communicate, don’t confront—extols social outreach (“Straight Up To The Light (Talking To Myself)”) and to end affairs politely. This date’s torturous odyssey began when McNeely penned this set for Niemack’s 1993 and 2001 gigs with WDR Big Band. Later recorded with Danes, it’s finally released here. Some music is really worth the wait.

Fred Bouchard (DownBeat)