July 31 2013 12:00 AM

Mardra Thomas brings out the story in a song

Mardra Thomas isn’t out to kill you with mad skills, although she’s got them. Deep healing is more her style. When she sings Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” you don’t notice how smoothly she handles that crazy high-to-low interval on the words “You haunt me.” You just know she’s haunted.

In her first appearance at JazzFest, Thomas will perform Saturday night at 8:30 in Old Town with her husband and arranger, Michigan State University Professor of Jazz Reggie Thomas, on piano. 

Thomas, 58, gravitates toward “story” songs like “Where Do You Start,” a heart-tugger about lovers who break up and have to sort through their things. Last year, a woman approached her after she sang the song at a gig in Door County, Wis. Thomas recognized her from the crowd.

“I noticed she was crying,” Thomas said.

The woman said her husband died six months earlier and the song hit her hard. 

“How long do you keep the dresses in the closet, or the suits?” Thomas wondered. “Did I buy this book or did you? When something happens, whether it’s disagreement, divorce or death, where do you start separating? The truth is — you can’t.”

The song made it clear to the grieving woman that separation is an illusion.

“A day will come and some music will play and I’ll think of you, because you’re deep in my heart,” Thomas said. “That’s just the way it is.”

The particular facts of a song don’t matter to Thomas as much as that feeling Herman Melville called “the universal thump.”

“We’re all going through something,” she said. 

She moved to Lansing last fall when her husband became an MSU Professor of Jazz after 20 years of teaching at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. It’s a big life change for both of them. They left a lot of friends and family behind.

“My eyes are open to what will happen in Michigan,” she said. “I’m in a very new land.”

Through many life changes, music has been the constant. At 10, Thomas started working summers at her grandparents’ store, the Deluxe Record Shop, on Dorr Street in Toledo, which closed in the 1980s. She stayed with her grandparents in a house attached to the back. “I listened to Motown, gospel, organ trios — everything — from 9 in the morning to 8 at night,” she said.

Thomas often sings in the persona of Billie Holiday. In “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a portrait of the singer in her troubled later years, Holliday talks about hanging in a bordello, listening to recordings of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and other jazz and blues greats.

“I could relate to that, being a young girl and listening to whatever you want,” Thomas said.

As her family moved around the country, following her father’s military assignments. Thomas was fascinated by country and bluegrass.

“I loved the story lines in country and western songs,” she said. “That helped me understand the importance of telling a story in singing.”

She doesn’t see a lot of that in some of today’s divas.

“It’s a show of what you can do vocally,” she said. “When are you going to connect?”

Thomas first connected from a high chair, singing call and response with her aunt while the cream of wheat simmered. “Back then, you didn’t have microwaves, so it took a while,” she said.

In 1988, she was invited to perform at Dizzy Gillespie’s 70th birthday concert at Southern Illinois University as part of a local singing group. Corny as it sounds, a talent scout was in the audience and recommended Thomas to the director of a traveling Cotton Club revue. The revue’s musical director was a dynamic pianist and composer named Reggie Thomas. 

Doors opened and fresh breezes blew. “I didn’t orchestrate it,” she said. “One thing led to another.”

A long string of gigs followed, including a tour of Europe with a powerhouse big band led by Ron Carter, the saxophonist, bandleader and teacher at Northern Illinois University who came to MSU for a teaching stint last year.

In 2011, two years before the Thomases moved here, Mardra did her Billie Holiday tribute at the East Lansing Summer Solstice festival and got acquainted with the mid-Michigan jazz scene.

“I was impressed with the festival,” she said. “People are really committed to it.”

She had a ball at the same festival this year when bassist Rodney Whitaker organized a summit of four top area vocalists, teaming Thomas with Betty Joplin, Ramona Collins and Betty Baxter. It was the record store all over again, with jazz, blues, swing and Motown in the mix.

“It’s not often you get to work with other vocalists,” Thomas said. She had never met Collins, who is from Lansing but now based in Toledo, but they hit it off, trading stories about the old days and the Deluxe Record Shop.

On stage and off, Mardra and Reggie Thomas have a rich partnership. They have three children and five grandchildren, most of whom live in the St. Louis area.

As they listen to music at home or in the car, Mardra Thomas will enjoy the feeling of a tune while her husband explains its finer points from the composer’s point of view.

“I learn from him every day,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t have an ‘off’ switch for teaching.” 

Their stage rapport is an extension of their easy affection and respect at home.

“When we’re performing together, people think a lot of things are scripted, but it’s what we do,” she said.

Reggie Thomas’ arrangements for her don’t steamroll the standards with intrusive “ideas,” but they are fresh enough to generate a nice slosh of delayed recognition in your mind. Isn’t that “Mood Indigo?” Maybe not. Wait — of course it is.

“It’s not changing anything in a bizarre way, just making it fresh and new,” she said. “Clarity is important because people have to hear and understand the story.”