It’s appropriate that I’d be listening to Irma Thomas’ new R&B record, Simply Grand when I heard that Jerry Wexler had died.

To paraphrase what Edwin Stanton said about Lincoln (actually it’s his own revision of what he actually said), “Now, Atlantic Records belongs to the ages.” Neshui (1989), Tom Dowd (2002), Ahmet (2006) and now, Wexler, who died at age 91 at 3:45 this morning (Friday, August 15, 2008) are all gone. What an incredible creative vision this trio of unlikely collaborators had. At the risk of sounding maudlin and doomy, the music world will never again see the kind of creative synergy and united front they generated, a situation where collectively they seamlessly made up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses as people and as music entrepreneurs.

Fortunately, the music they loved lives on, if only via a diminishing handful of second generation performers like Irma Thomas who was once thought of as a kid but who’s now become an R&B elder. Born and raised in south Louisiana, Thomas sung with Tommy Ridgely and recorded for Minit Records (w/Allen Toussaint) and Imperial (who bought Minit) before signing with Rounder in 1991. Although at 67, she’s a year older than Atlantic Records icon Aretha Franklin, Thomas has less voice and so has had a quieter, more New Orleans–based career, winning her first Grammy in 2007 for After the Rain. Thomas’ new record is one of those duet affairs where every tune features the playing or singing of a different guest star. The theory of course is the bigger the stars, the more the record will sell. Again, that’s the theory. Oftentimes, what comes off record’s like these is an aural Frankenstein. The problem usually revolves around the fact that the guests appear via Fedex, that is, they sing or play their part at a studio near their home (or home studio) and literally send it in.

Here the duet guests are all pianists and according to the notes, everything was cut live, with both guest pianist and distinguished singer in the same studio. The `ol “star–studded” gimmick never produces albums that are solid all the way through but here the average is fairly high. It’s no surprise that she’s best at the New Orleans–flavored material like “Somebody Told You,” (with John Medeski), and “If I Had Any Sense I’d Go Back Home,” (with another onetime NOLA squirt turned elder, Dr. John). This pairing also shines on “Be You,” an unreleased Rebennack/Doc Pomus tune.

From there she spreads her wings materialwise with varying results. Jon Cleary adds a spunky edge to his tune, “Too Much Thinking” (On My Mind), which Thomas clearly felt a connection with, given the way she nails it. At times on that tune she sounds like Marcia Ball who appears as an accompanist on the slow, effective, “ Same Old Blues.” The album’s elegiac closer, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain,” (with Newman on keys) comes off like a hymn. Where things get really interesting is when she and David Torkanowsky take on Burt Bacharach’s “What Can I Do,” which she nearly gets but which in the end may be beyond her emotional range, which tells you why she’s not better known. And then there’s “Underground Stream” by and with David Egan, which just isn’t much of a tune. The same goes for, “Thinking about You,” which features the album’s most commercial name, Norah Jones. The sooner everyone gets it in their head that Jones just ain’t a songwriter of note the better. Yes, she’s cute, she can play and sing but songwriting takes something to say and so far, Miss Norah is drawing a blank. This tune is a perfect example. “Thinking About You?” Now, there’s an original not to mention deep statement.

Bitching aside, Simply Grand has enough great singing on it to make it worth more than a listen. While she’ll never be Aretha–who will?– Irma has the kind of pipes and heart that Wexler always appreciated.

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