Oleta Adams, the daughter of a Baptist minister, first recognized the power of singing as a child while performing at her father’s church.
“They let you know right that moment if they liked you. They clapped and screamed and hollered. Hearing that, I realized that music touched places that nothing else could touch,” she said from her Kansas City home.
It’s no surprise that Adams’ first influences include the Rev. James Cleveland and other gospel stalwarts. She was captivated by Aretha Franklin--also a Baptist minister’s daughter--Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.
“Life changed after I heard them,” she said of the vocal duo that so successfully combined gospel sensibilities with pop material. “They had a great influence on me.”
Adams, who appears tonight at the Hyatt Newporter’s summer jazz series, was a virtual unknown who performed around the Midwest and Kansas City in the late ‘80s.
Then she was discovered by Roland Orzabal of the pop group Tears for Fears and began appearing with them. The exposure led to a contract with Mercury Records and three releases, the last, 1996’s “Moving On,” garnered critical acclaim, particularly for the command and tone of her voice.
In 1997, the Yakima, Wash., native recorded “Come Walk With Me,” a gospel-influenced album on the Harmony US label. Just off a long European and domestic tour with drummer Phil Collins’ big band, Adams said she’s a more controlled singer than many of today’s current pop divas.
“I have a bit lower voice, and I don’t do any of that screaming and scooting around,” she said, then warbled comically to show what she meant.
“I have some classical background, and in classical music they love restraint. Now, there’s a lot of emotion being brought up in religious music and the blues culture, but you have to know how to control it. People will hear a lot of control [when I sing].”
Some reviewers criticized Adams’ “Moving On,” saying the material was not up to the singer’s high talents. She admits that finding good songs isn’t easy.
“If I were somebody whose voice goes all over the place, it wouldn’t matter because nobody would care what the song’s about anyway. But what the song means is very important to me. The words are important. The melody is important.”
With few exceptions, Adams doesn’t think that kind of material is being written today.
“The problem is that the mass-buying audience is young people. I can totally understand why they don’t want to be too serious, why they want to have a good time. They don’t need to sing the blues yet. But why can’t we get the adults into the stores to buy into the seriousness of music like they used to?”
Still, Adams, who writes some of her own tunes, suggests there is hope.
“There is some new music being written that is great. I listen to Sarah McLachlan and I just melt; there are things going on, the lyrics are so deep and poignant. I think it’s great that this particular music is coming back. Sit tight a little longer, and in five years something else will be going on.”
When her eight-piece ensemble plays Orange County tonight (Adams’ husband John Cushon is the drummer) the singer will sit tight at the keyboard, where she’ll spend “99%" of her time.
“I picked up a jazz tag when people saw me performing at the piano. They figure if there’s a woman at the piano, then it has to be jazz. Elton John sings from the piano, but nobody thinks of him as a jazz player. Playing piano gives you more freedom. And besides, it’s more dependable: I’m the only piano player I’ve had who’s never left the band.”
* Oleta Adams appears tonight at the Summer Jazz Series at the Hyatt, Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road. 7 p.m. show $20, 8:45 p.m. show $35. (949) 650-5483.