Kansas City's Oleta Adams Knows How To Make A Hit, But Her New Album Isn't Trying To

Jun 20, 2017

Fireworks lit the sky behind Oleta Adams as she headlined 18th and Vine's Kansas City Jazz & Heritage Festival on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend — but they were intended for the audience a couple of miles away at Union Station, where the Kansas City Symphony was performing its annual Celebration at the Station.

That serendipitous special effect at a concert in which Adams debuted songs from her new album Third Set typifies her career.

Even at the height of her popularity, Adams never seemed drawn to the spotlight. After touring and recording with the British pop band Tears for Fears and achieving a massive solo hit with “Get Here” in 1991, the Seattle native refused to abandon her home in the Kansas City area.

“I came to Kansas City for the first time in 1975, working at the Westin Crown Center off and on for 12 years,” she recalls. “I moved here to a suburb in Kansas permanently in 1982 and never left.”

Adams may consider Kansas City her home, but the cosmopolitan tone of Third Set, her recently released tenth studio album, reflects Adams’ life as an international star. Her 2017 tour schedule includes engagements from Alabama to Amsterdam.

Her new release "wasn't meant to chase hits," she says. Instead, it “pays homage to the days when people came to the third set to listen to whatever we felt like playing at that moment.”

Adams affirms her indifference to commercial considerations on the record's opening tracks, whose leisurely feeling is worlds removed from the glossy sheen that once made her a peer of sophisticated R&B artists like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker.

A nine-minute rendition of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me” possesses the sort of shrewd insights that reflect Adams’ 46 years as a professional musician, and a mature rendering of the torch song “Only the Lonely” is so wrenching that it might have elicited sympathetic tears from Frank Sinatra.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum is a sprightly and earthy remake of “Rhythm of Life,” which sounded much slicker when it opened Adams' 1991 breakout album Circle of One.

Adams describes the record's production as “natural, free and alive” — the result of a recording session that lasted only three days. Its organic sound resonates on a stunning interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow.”

“While I was learning the song, it played out live,” Adams says, in the presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “Although she wrote it in the '70s, it’s amazing how very little has changed. I’m talking about the battle of women challenging men in a man’s world. I’d say that in 2016, a powerful women went down in flames.”

Adams also addresses the horrors of "another shooting, another act of violence, another act of bullying, another injustice” with a startling remake of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” featuring “tribal drums” applied by her husband, John Cushon.

But her goal is to have Third Set convey “the whole range of emotions,” which also means a sexy take on Nina Simone’s “Do I Move You.” Adams lacks Simone’s cultural cachet, but her voice and keyboard work are no less commanding.

“My voice has always been bigger than I am," she admits, "and I’ve learned to appreciate the uniqueness of it.”

Adams exudes humility with the acknowledgement that she's among those artists who, as she puts it, "allow their hit songs to grow with them.”

It's as if Adams knows she doesn't need fireworks to light up the background at her shows. The ones on Third Set are more than satisfying.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.