Irma Thomas, Simply Grand (Rounder)

On After the Rain, producer Scott Billington surrounded Irma Thomas with a smaller band than usual, and the results earned her a Grammy. For Simply Grand, he once again stripped down the musical backing to a piano—hence the title—and in most cases the rhythm section of James Singleton and Raymond Weber. Here again, the conceit pays off spectacularly, as the contexts allow Thomas to step in and out of modes, genres and personas to suit the songs, and she makes right choice after right choice. Nothing sounds facile, every emotion sounds lived, and the emotions are all properly modulated.

A great example is “What Can I Do,” a Burt Bacharach song that can’t help but evoke the memory of Dionne Warwick. But Thomas’ vocal is far more real than anything Warwick did with a Bacharach melody, even when the song veers toward a show tune. She asks an absent lover what she has to do to win him back, and the chorus swells and she fiercely sings, “What can I do to make you happy? / I’ll make you happy if you just let me.” But the swell crests, the energy falls away, and when she asks, “What can I do / to make you love me again?” her voice cracks at “love” and “again.” She knows she’s not getting another chance and is aware of what she lost.

Then again, Tom McDermott plays a high-tone version of Professor Longhair to accompany Thomas on “Early in the Morning,” which presents her up late with the blues over a guy. McDermott’s mock rhumba and the way Thomas lingers over the lyrics says she’s in love, and she loves her blues because the ache confirms her depth of feeling.

Not all of her musical decisions involve vocal acting. Near the end of “If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home,” she emphasizes “had any sense” in a slightly showy manner, just enough to signal that she recognizes the blues as a genre, and the song she’s singing is a story, not necessarily her story. The sense of fun she brings to “Too Much Thinking” expands the wink of “If I Had Any Sense” to a knowing grin. On the other hand, she weighs each word in Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” with the gravity of someone who has had to deal with rain and the uncertainty of kindness with only her will to trust as an unsteady compass.

Not surprisingly, the piano accompanists make equally good use of their time, supporting Thomas while putting their own fingerprints on their performances. The joy in the physical act of playing that you hear in Jon Cleary’s music is present here, and the unobtrusive, gently soulful quality of David Egan’s art shines through “Underground Stream.” Thomas and Dr. John sound like an old married couple together, and Ellis Marsalis lays out a spare, melodically rich landscape for her to explore on “This Bitter Earth.”

But Simply Grand is Thomas’ album. Time has made her voice more textured, her years on the stage have made her a remarkably resourceful singer, and the life she has lived has made her a more nuanced interpreter of songs. She has listened to her heart like a schoolgirl and found herself in a world of mess before; now she hears deeper dramas in the material and makes what she comes up with sounds inevitable.