IRMA THOMAS Simply Grand (Rounder) Rating: NNNN
It took Rounder's A&R ace Scott Billington 20 years and a pile of albums, but he's finally hit on the winning concept of featuring the gorgeous voice of New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas with spare piano accompaniment. It might seem easy, and the supremely talented Thomas and her 12 pianist collaborators - everyone from Crescent City thrillers Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis and Henry Butler to Norah Jones, Marcia Ball and John Medeski, with Allen Toussaint conspicuously absent - make it all sound effortless. But choosing the appropriate material and pulling off 12 separate sessions with artists who've got their own busy careers must've been a logistical nightmare.
The stellar results make all the work worthwhile. Simply Grand is the perfect showcase for Thomas's impressive range and understated power. She can belt with the best of them, but Thomas conveys much more with just a whisper, as you can hear in the softly delivered gut punch of a closer I Think It's Gonna Rain Today, on which she's exquisitely backed by the song's composer, Randy Newman.