Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas
Simply Grand

Rounder CDROUN2202

By Art Tipaldi
October 2008

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Just as there are wines that match well with certain foods, there are also voices that are meant to pair with certain instruments. Listening to Irma Thomas’ voice backed only by a lush, grand piano is the wine-food equivalent of matching a richly aged, Bordeaux with a succulent filet mignon.

After copping her first Grammy Award (and a Blues Music Award for Soul- Blues Album of the Year) for the outstanding 2006 After The Rain CD, Thomas and her longtime producer Scott Billington set out to showcase the vocal intimacy of this Soul Queen of New Orleans.

Since recording “Time Is On My Side” as a teen in the 1960s, Thomas has always carried the musical heredity of her place. Pair that expressive alto with a dozen of the finest pianists from the Crescent City and Simply Grand is a record for the ages.

No one can ever underestimate the devastating effects of Katrina on the people who lived in New Orleans. There has been song after song and album after album dedicated to ease both individual and collective loss.

Because Thomas lost her home and restaurant, the Lion’s Den, that personal anguish runs unwittingly throughout the tunes she’s selected. Look no further the opening tune, “River Is Waiting,” where Thomas sings of “a new day coming” accompanied by Henry Butler’s colorful treble flights and her answering, churchlike choir.

Backed by David Torkanowsky’s ornate piano, Thomas uses “Cold Rain” to make known that there’s always a cleansing after the storm. She closes the record as she started, with Randy Newman’s poignant accents accompanying Thomas’ deep toned take on Newman’s signature “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.”

Filling out the rest of the record are tunes in which Thomas shows off her broad musical talents. She can effortlessly pair her voice with any musical style from pop to jazz to blues to soul and R&B. The rollicking, riverboat piano that opens Rose Marie McCoy’s 1950 blue tinted “If I Had Any Sense, I’d Go Back Home” is 100 percent Dr. John. As Thomas leans on the Dr. John’s Grand, she harkens back to the days when classic blues women told tales of their hard lives. The two pair up later on the Doc Pomus’ “Be You.”

When Jon Cleary pounds out New Orleans funk on “Too Much Thinking,” Thomas’ delivery accents the R&B she crafted living in the Crescent City.

On “This Bitter Earth,” recorded in December 2007, a month before the death of its writer, Clyde Otis, Thomas and Ellis Marsalis recreate this sadly ironic 1960 Dinah Washington hit.

Thomas partners with pop icon Nora Jones for Jones’ “Thinking About You,” and jam band fav John Medeski on “Somebody Told You,” a tune Thomas first recorded in 1962. She pairs with Davell Crawford, the Prince of New Orleans piano, on the delicious R&B ballad, “Overrated.”

To fully appreciate the range Thomas has, listen to how she and Torkanowsky handle the Burt Bacharach-Steve Krikorian “What Can I Do.”

No Irma Thomas record would be complete without her dear friend Marcia Ball.

The most poignant moment of the 28th Blues Music Award show in 2007 was the spotlight pairing of Irma’s aching vocals with the subdued piano of Ball, her long-time friend, as they dedicated Irma’s gorgeous “Shelter From The Storm” to all effected by Katrina. The picture of Irma and Marcia - separated by the sky blue Gibson piano with four BMA trophies on top - turning emotion into notes was the most talked about moment. Here, as at the aforementioned awards, only Ball’s dynamic piano and Thomas’ tender vocals unravel Don Nix’s “Same Old Blues.”

Since the days of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans has always been a “piano first” musical locale. As such, its vocalists understand the primal relationship between keys and chords. And no one understands that relationship better than Thomas. Her voice and soul is endowed with a complexity and depth that, like the world’s finest cellared wines, stands up to any musical style. Look for another Grammy and Blues Music Award in 2009.

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