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September 2008

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Irma Thomas
Simply Grand
Rounder Records

Irma Thomas

There’s reason a musician or band gets tagged with a title that follows them throughout their career. For Irma Thomas, “The Soul Queen of New Orleans” is simple. Her outstanding contributions to New Orleans soul for close to 50 years (her first recording was in 1959 with Dr. John at the 88s) is very well known. Her vocal prowess can cover any form of the blues or R&B as is shown on her new Rounder release, Simply Grand. The title is a direct reference to the fact that each song features a masterful pianist on a grand piano “dueting” with Thomas. The list is wide and varied with everyone from Randy Newman to Ellis Marsalis and of course Dr. John. On some tunes more instrumentation shows up, but it’s mostly Thomas and piano that works extremely well.

I’m sure Thomas had a hand in the decision making as to who would be accompanying her on the grand. Of the 14 tunes, nine of the pianists are from New Orleans or Louisiana, rightfully so. The lead song features piano great Henry Butler supplying a wonderful foundation for Thomas’s vocals on the "River is Waiting," written by John Fogerty, an upbeat tune about the flow of life through the flowing waters of the world. Dr. John makes two appearances with his unmistakable tinkling, wonderfully realized on "If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home," a bluesy number (originally done by Louis Jordan) recorded on Mardi Gras day “08”. You can just feel the spirit of the moment. Lafayette, LA. resident and powerful singer/songwriter David Egan makes an appearance on his own "Underground Stream" asking us to tap into our own “water supply” to irrigate the life of the world.

Musicians outside the New Orleans scene include Norah Jones, providing spirited piano on her self-penned chestnut "Thinking About You," lamenting about a lost love who still shows up in memory by the look and feel of everyday, the love having been that strong. John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame, happily pounds the keys to "Somebody Told You," exploring the lies we sometimes tell in our relationships. Finally, on the last song on the CD we get rewarded with a stellar version of Randy Newman’s "I Think It’s Going To Rain Today" with master wit himself on the black and whites.

I have to mention Thomas’s old friend and musical partner, Marcia Ball. Thomas, Ball and Tracy Nelson teamed up for the Rounder release, Sing It, from 1998, which should be in everyone’s collection. Here, Ball’s blues flourishes connect with Thomas’s vocal talent on "Same Old Blues," giving us a sweet number about life’s hard times. Very well done.

A hearty bravo to an unmistakable talent, Thomas clearly demonstrates why she will always be the “The Soul Queen of New Orleans,” still beautifully singing after almost five decades of recording and performing. Enjoy.

--- Bruce Coen


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