Irma Thomas – Simply Grand (2008)

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Irma Thomas, whose Louisiana legend of a voice has darkened into a more expressive place, is taking a similar career tack. The new “Simply Grand,” in fact, finds Thomas moving deeper into the emotional underpinnings of her best work at a time when safer environs would probably be more profitable.

That perhaps started with her most recent recording on Rounder, the Grammy-award winning “After the Rain,” which included a pared-down set of serious-minded improvisers (pianist David Torkanowsky and slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, among them) in direct contrast to the standard R&B setting that surely was an easier sell.

Here, on the follow up “Simply Grand,” producer Scott Billington sheds still more layers — highlighting this new Blues Hall of Famer with an uncluttered series of small groups featuring pianists like Dr. John, David Egan, Ellis Marsalis, John Medeski, Marcia Ball, Randy Newman, Torkanowsky and Norah Jones, among others.

The result is as revealing a record as Thomas has made, one that adds another dimension to her already towering legacy. For a singer long known as the Queen of Soul, she’s found new depths.

“This Bitter Earth,” a Dinah Washington staple done with Marsalis, is the jazz standard Thomas never attempted before — reflective and soulful, completely true. She’s equally tender on “Thinking About You,” by Jones — who, after all, had recorded Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart.”

Dr. John, guitarist on Thomas’ debut single — the tasty “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man)” — is featured on both vocals and at the piano on “If I Had Any Sense, I’d Go Back Home” and “Be You.” The second was an unrecorded track written by Dr. John for Etta James, but never released; the first is an old Louis Jordan barrelhouse tune. Both were recorded last year, fittingly enough, on Mardi Gras Day.

Tom McDermott, a local pianist who blends styles from Jelly Roll Morton to James Booker, also appears on a song associated with Jordan, “Early in the Morning.”

Henry Butler returned to add a distinctive African shading to Thomas’ rousingly gospel-inflected version of John Fogerty’s “River Is Waiting,” the album opener.

Interestingly, perhaps the most memorable tunes on “Simply Grand” — including Leon Russell’s “Same Old Blues” and “If I Had Any Sense” — find Thomas’ work laid bare in duet form.

On “Blues,” she appears with Ball, with whom Thomas was Grammy-nominated for a record with Tracy Nelson, “Sing It!,” in 1999. Even at 67, she can still rip through Allen Toussaint’s “Somebody Told You,” alone with John Medeski, in a first-take moment of unbridled artistry.

Jon Cleary, from Bonnie Raitt’s band, also brought along “Too Much Thinking.” Davell Crawford, often called The Piano Prince of New Orleans (and featured during the 2008 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans), offered his original “Overrated.”

Bassist James Singleton, who appeared on “After the Rain,” is the featured bassist, along with drummer Raymond Webber, an underappreciated New Orleans genius. Torkanowsky returns for Burt Bacharach’s “What Can I Do,” and “Cold Rain,” as well.

Thomas’ bittersweet take on Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” provides the perfect coda for a city drowned by Katrina. Yet this isn’t an album about the storm, as difficult as it is to get away from that towering tragedy — in particular, on songs like “Cold Rain,” when Thomas sings “here it comes, no place to run … nowhere to hide.”

The same might have been said, though, about a late-career fade to black for a singer of Irma Thomas’ vintage. After all, that debut single with Dr. John arrived … in 1959.

She’s fought off obsolence by keeping it both simple, and grand.

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