IRMA THOMAS / “This Bitter Earth”
[This album] made me go into areas of performing, as an artist, singing, that I’d never ventured into before, such as the song I did with Mr. Marsalis [“This Bitter Earth”]. I don’t usually get a chance to do standards like that. And it felt really, really good. With the audience I perform to, sometimes I can get away with stuff like that, but most of the time they want to hear my old ’60s material, and I accommodate them because that’s what it’s all about—you give your audience what they want. But, as a performer, it was a pleasure and an honor to be able to show people—with someone [like Marsalis] who’s been doing it all his life—that I can actually sing standards. —Irma ThomasI can’t tell you the exact date—it was in the eighties, I think—but I’ll never forget the night. It was every producer’s nightmare. A special, one-time only performance. We were crowning Irma Thomas “Queen of New Orleans Music.” Yes, we had a crown fashioned especially for her—we make all kinds of crowns for Mardi Gras, and though we couldn’t afford precious jewels, it was a beautiful piece of jewelry. Friends and musical associates were all lined up to pay tribute, including Allen Toussaint who agreed to do a short duo set with Irma. We worked out a deal with the Musician’s Union and radio station WWOZ to broadcast the night. And what a night it was: New Orleans warm. A little humid but no rain no where around. Everything was in order except… Earlier that day, Irma’s father had died. I consulted the sidewalk: what should we do? I listened to the brick wall backstage. I held one of the poles at the side of the stage. I had talked briefly with Irma, she said she was still going to do the program. I believed her but, you know, my father had died some years earlier. I don’t remember feeling like doing anything on that day. To make a short story, succinct. Irma arrived. We embraced. And the show went on. Can’t nothing stop Irma Thomas. Can’t nothing stop my love and respect, my endless admiration for Irma Thomas. Born in 1941, she’s six years older than I am. I never had no sisters. I’m the oldest of three boys. Tell you what, if I had the opportunity to pick a sister, it would be Irma. In all her fortitude, faith and good humor even when she’s down, she’ll pick you up. She’s just plain, good people, real good people. These tracks are from Simply Grand, her second, post-Katrina album and it features her working with a brace of piano players, most of whom suggested the songs they’d like to do with her. While she won a 2007 Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy for After The Rain, I think Simply Grand (2008) is much stronger and far more nuanced and certainly more diverse. “River Is Waiting” features Henry Butler doing his rolling, classical touches modifying a gospel groove. Check my man’s brief solo before they launch into one of those irresistible, iconic New Orleans kick-em ups. “If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home” and “Be You” are deep bluesy Dr. John explorations on which Irma understates her exaggerated statements. Together they perfectly capture the gutsy I’m going to sing my way out this hole attitude on the first number and on the second number it’s all about a good woman making a great declaration. “Same Old Blues” sounds to me like a gospel number that has been outfitted with new lyrics. That’s Marcia Ball on keys on this one. “Overrated” features wunderkind Davell Crawford, whom Irma declares she has known all his life. It’s the most modern song in the set and seems made for a quiet storm kind of format. Composer Randy Newman deigns to accompany Irma on an almost extemporaneous reading of “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” a song that I associate with Nina Simone. This is one of those numbers that happen after the set is through and everybody has packed up and maybe the piano player gets a feeling and just sits down and starts in on something that been on his mind and hearing the opening notes, the vocalist turns and eases up behind the pianist, nudges him over with a deft touch of her hip to his shoulder, sits beside him and intones the song in a soft voice meant for only their ears. “This Bitter Earth” is the Ellis Marsalis number. As far as I’m concerned, there could have been at least sixteen more like this. Give the lack of pyrotechnics, one might mistakenly assume that singing like this is easy to do but these seemingly effortless numbers are actually carefully crafted sound sculptures. Minimal in their contours but hefty in their impact. This whole album in general, and “Bitter Earth” especially, represent the statement of a mature artist—a woman singing life songs, sketching with her voice the totality of existence. All in all, Simply Grand is an understated, walking half-fast, street procession that stops here and there to pay respects to old friends and new acquaintances. It’s what we do a lot in certain parts of New Orleans where it takes a half hour to make a five minute walk to the corner store—I mean you got to talk to people. It ain’t civilized to walk on by without speaking. This is the kind of music this is. Irma is neither loud nor lewd even though she can shake and shimmy and get rowdy with the best of the crowd, but you know the old saying about a time and a place? Well this is the space for serious carrying on. Not grim and stern serious, and certainly not carefree and frolicking “I’m seriously going to forget about all my troubles and kick up my heels and pretend everything is alright.” No, not none of that. This is the music of the true believer who is realistic about how rough today is and optimistic about how beautiful tomorrow will be—whensoever a beautiful tomorrow arrives. Irma is a charter member of the Day & Night Perseverance Social, Aid & Pleasure Club. When she sings, she takes care of you. Wraps you in the warmth of her voice and in the moments when you can’t see no light, her heart beams like a lighthouse beacon guiding you home. I have my favorites of Irma’s classic R&B songs, which I will always listen to from time to time, but, you see, these pieces on Simply Grand are almost timeless in capturing both the grit and the gleam of determination trumping troubles, or to put it another way, like they used to say (maybe they still do—I haven’t been up in church in so long), anyway, like they used to say in the Baptist church, my determination is to keep on keeping on. That’s what Irma is singing. Irma Thomas: the sound of keeping on keeping on! Have mercy. —Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 1:41 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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