Back in May of 2007, Irma Thomas gave a gripping performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. She’d been “camping out,” as she put it, in her mostly renovated house in New Orleans East, an area particularly hard-hit by the 2005 floods. She was irked by negative reports about New Orleans, “some of them from folks who haven’t been down here to see all the good things that are going on.” She’d given up on her nightclub, the Lion’s Den, but remained faithful to the First African Baptist Church choir, which, she pointed out, “was back and singing by November after the storm.” In her many interviews since Katrina, Thomas’s statements have been clear and direct, unafraid to address sadness and pain, but always tinged with optimism. The same can be said of her singing throughout the years; those qualities infused her Grammy-winning last CD, 2006’s After the Rain. This new one’s even better.
A simple idea animates Simply Grand‘s 14 tracks: Bring Thomas together with a dozen pianists, all Crescent City natives, transplants, or fans. Her voice is rich, finely textured, and more expressive now than when it hit r&b charts in the 1960s. But her recordings can sound monotonous. That’s not true here, though, as she’s urged on by the predilections of her accompanists, not to mention the adaptive skills of bassist James Singleton and drummer Raymond Weber on most tracks. Thomas’s church roots are planted deep in “River Is Waiting,” with Henry Butler’s improvisations responding to Thomas’s call, his loping rhythm lending a South African inflection. And they’re subtly implied on “Overrated,” a soft-edged ballad with Davell Crawford. Thomas’s authoritative r&b croon bounces funkily via John Cleary on “Too Much Thinking,” communes with the spirit of Professor Longhair as conjured by Tom McDermott on “Early in the Morning,” and drives hard on a remake of “Somebody Told You” with John Medeski. There are less likely pairings too, including Norah Jones (a bit too placid) and Ellis Marsalis (elegant and sharp). But Thomas sounds freest and swings hardest on two duets with Dr. John (especially the shimmying “Be You”), and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” makes for a perfect closer: Newman plays it at a crawling tempo, nearly rubato, distilling tenderness and vulnerability in Thomas’s voice to striking effect. “Human kindness is overflowing,” she sings each time the chorus comes around, drawing conviction as much from the life she’s lived during the past three years as from the songs she’s sung for nearly 50.
Irma Thomas plays Joe’s Pub August 13 and Lincoln Center August 23