First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2008, Volume 15, #8
Written by John Metzger
Tue August 26, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Not many established artists are willing to assume the risks that Irma Thomas has taken in recent years, and the credit should be split evenly between her and her producer Scott Billington. After all, he keeps finding new ways of framing her glorious voice, while she has had the wisdom to trust his intuition implicitly. Their approach to her 2006 set After the Rain resulted in a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and thereís no reason to think that Simply Grand, their latest collaborative effort, wonít achieve the same level of success.
For starters, Simply Grand is better than its predecessor. Its concept is remarkably straightforward and completely unpretentious, too. Throughout the set, Thomas is paired with a dizzying array of piano players that include elder statesmen like Ellis Marsalis and Dr. John as well as relative newcomers such as Norah Jones and John Medeski. Although Thomas and her accomplices are supported on occasion by a sparse backing band as well as a small string section, the emphasis revolves entirely around the intimate ways in which the pianists underscore her dynamic, emotional vocal presentations.
Considering that Thomas is the undisputed queen of New Orleans-imbued soul, it goes without saying that anything she touches will be baked in the musical spirit of her hometown. Sure enough, over the course of Simply Grand, she provides a masterful overview of the Crescent Cityís rich cultural legacy by delving into a broad range of blues-inflected styles. With Marsalis, for example, Thomas effortlessly explores the jazzy textures of This Bitter Earth, and joined by Jon Cleary, she revels in the joyous, funky glow of Too Much Thinking. Elsewhere, with the help of Henry Butler, she captures the beauty of John Fogertyís River Is Waiting, while Marcia Ball and Randy Newman provide Simply Grand with a majestic exit on Same Old Blues and I Think Itís Going to Rain Today, respectively.
Itís true that a few of the tracks on Simply Grand falter because Thomas is unable to find the emotional edge from which to deliver them ó most notably Overrated and What Can I Do. On the bulk of the album, however, Thomas and her collaborators work wonders with the material, transforming the set into a tribute of sorts to the Crescent City, one that is filled with deep mourning over the past as well as unwavering optimism for the future. Consequently, Simply Grand makes a huge and immediate impact on a superficial level, and over time, its subtleties spring to life, ultimately leaving a long-lasting impression. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Simply Grand is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box