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Judy Niemack: What’s Love? (Sunnyside)

A review of the veteran singer's latest, which teams her with producer Don Sickler, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and a top-notch band

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Cover of Judy Niemack album What's Love?
Cover of Judy Niemack album What’s Love?

What’s love got to do with it? When it comes to veteran jazz vocalist Judy Niemack, everything. Almost 45 years after she released her first album, Niemack has lost none of her curiosity about the vicissitudes of the human heart. It seems fitting that the veteran educator who’s spread the gospel of jazz around the world offers a master class in designing a program.

It’s not so much the sequence of the tunes, which are mostly Niemack originals written with various collaborators. Rather, in describing and evoking the stages of romantic entanglement, the songs knock together and amplify larger themes about how we connect with each other. Produced by the estimable Don Sickler, this is an album by a master who knows just what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. The fact that Niemack is working with a superlative cast—featuring pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Doug Weiss, drummer Joe Farnsworth, and guitarist Peter Bernstein—makes What’s Love? a question (and a recording) well worth lingering over.

Not every song hits home. While the melody is lovely, “Catalyst” is too on-the-nose in its description of infatuation for my taste. But Niemack doesn’t linger in bliss. She follows with a more-in-sadness-than-anger ballad “I’m Moving On” (which features some particularly striking work by Fortner) and offers a languorous reimagining of the Tina Turner hit “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” The album’s two standards are also gems, as she imbues “For All We Know” with tender uncertainty and avoids self-pity as she mines the deep vein of regret running through “Born to Be Blue.” What’s Love? situates Niemack in her element, mixing it up with the cats, revealing insights she’s gleaned on her travels.

Learn more about What’s Love? on Amazon

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Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.