Is it possible to parse statements about New Orleans' recovery from Irma Thomas' album covers? Her first post-Katrina effort (2006's After the Rain) pictured the singer in beatific, flowing white, her hair wrapped in a scarf like a priestess preparing to make an offering to the loa. Against a vague taupe background, Thomas " photographed head and shoulders only " smiled with closed lips and looked to the side; the kind of calm, ruminative pose that befitted the mournful, cathartic album. The cover of Simply Grand, released this week, tells a different story. Every inch the saucy chanteuse, the singer leans up against a glossy black grand piano in a form-fitting spaghetti-strap satin cocktail dress with a full-face grin. In the background is a blooming, verdant nature scene, bursting with lively green.
'[After the Rain] was emotional for all of us, because that was our therapeutic time," Thomas says.
Simply Grand is a joyful return to business as usual. Sunday morning prayers are over; it's time to fast-forward back to Saturday night soul.
The Grammy award Thomas won for After the Rain has triumphant pride of place on her mantelpiece, in the cream-accented front room of her home in New Orleans East. The well-earned statuette marks the hard-won recognition that was a long time in coming, after decades in the business " but it's the house itself, freshly renovated and impeccably decorated, that stands as the real symbol of victory for the consummate New Orleanian. Drills and hammers reverberate all along the street as Thomas's neighbors slog through their rebuilding efforts. Thomas' house, with fresh paint and a neatly landscaped lawn, is ahead of their curve. In a way, it seems to stand as representative of her whole near-half-century-long career: Not only has she endured and taken care of business like a pro, she's made it look easy.
The new album, Simply Grand (Rounder Records) features Irma paired with a diverse roster of pianists for a series of intimate, soulful duets that showcase what Thomas does best: belt the blues. Her accompanists run the gamut from frequent collaborators like David Torkanowsky to longtime mutual admirer Randy Newman to musical descendant Norah Jones. Simply Grand demonstrates how much can be done with this most basic of formulas, making it a project of beautiful depth, not breadth. Alongside the dignified jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Thomas' version of the jazz standard 'This Bitter Earth," a wracking lament done definitively by Dinah Washington more than 50 years ago, is mature and understatedly lovely. Trad-jazz trickster Tom McDermott boogies on 'Early In The Morning." And Thomas' wistful, heartfelt take on the album's closer, Newman's 'I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" adds tremendous dimension and, in a way, links Simply Grand's fun, mess-around-the-blues vibe to the gravity of After the Rain.
Most of New Orleans' familiar fingers make their way onto the keys on Simply Grand. Besides McDermott and Torkanowsky, there are appearances by Henry Butler, Jon Cleary and Marcia Ball. Thomas' original piano man, Allen Toussaint, is markedly absent " he declined to appear on Simply Grand " but the roster of fans and friends from past and present more than make up for it. Throughout it all is Thomas' unmistakable voice, flowing unchanged " deep and rich like rough molasses, with a sweet, dark bite.
'Each musician is a star in his own right, and that was the intention of doing the CD," Thomas says.
Another longtime collaborator, Dr. John, rears his feathered head on two tracks. What's it like to spend almost 50 years in the business with an old friend and still get together in the studio?
'It doesn't change," Thomas says. 'You are you and I am me, and we get together and do what we do best, and that's make records."
- Irma Thomas is accompanied by a full roster of talented pianists on Simply Grand.