Oleta Adams - Third Set (2017)

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    Oleta Adams - Third Set

    Oleta Adams - Third Set

    At piano bars and jazz haunts, many music lovers have had the experience at least once: It’s the one where you’ve heard a particularly talented singer contribute to a pleasant musical evening and maybe even perform an unusual rendition of a favorite standard that you now must own. Surprised that more folks haven’t heard of this amazing talent, you buy the singer’s CD after the set, eager to recapture that moment in your car or home, but for some reason while the recorded performance is all very competent, the magic is simply not there. Stubborn about it, you may play the project a few more times to see if it grows on you before it becomes an anonymous and forgotten part of your CD collection, rarely heard from again. This is essentially the experience of listening to Oleta Adam’s smooth jazz take on some modern pop classics and the Great American Songbook. A collection whose open arrangements give the singer no place to hide and reveals a maturing voice entering its golden years despite maintaining the rare timbre that makes Oleta Adams one of the most instantly recognizable singers of the soul and gospel canon.

    Third Set marks Adams’ 45th year in music and reflects the 17 of those she spent performing in piano bars like the one described. The third set is the set where the musicians play for themselves the kind of material they like, rather than catering to the more Top 40 taste and Fake Book standards more familiar to the audience. Mastery through those 10,000 Gladwell hours of late night sets would eventually hone the singer whose introduction wowed the world with Tears for Fears in 1989 on “Woman in Chains,” gifted her a Top 5 UK and US hit in 1991 with Brenda Russell’s “Get Here,” and landed Adams a trio of critically acclaimed early to mid-1990s albums (Circle of One, Evolution, and Moving On).

    By the late 90s, Grammy-nominated Adams’ torch songs and laboriously mature projects grew less creative and fell out of favor with modern pop and soul audiences, despite being a reliable staple on the adult contemporary touring circuit. Turning to gospel, Adams’ career as a recording artist found a well-deserved second life. So, the return to secular material was something of an unexpected gift for soul fans whom may have gotten off the Adams’ train some years before, raising hopes for the kind of material that made Adams such a well-respected musician over the last four and a half decades.

    Unfortunately, what becomes immediately apparent when listening to the near nine-minute version of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me” is that while the signature warm tone and rich timbre of Adams’ instrument are still intact, the range, steadiness, and power are not. This alone would not discount Third Set if there seemed to be some acknowledgment by Adams and her arrangers and producers that something had shifted and must be accommodated to better showcase Adams still refined gifts. Yet on overly extended classic after classic of five to eight-minute lengths, that ocean of room, swallows Adams whole rather than her instrument commanding the ship on cuts like Frank Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely” and Joni Mitchell’s “The River.” Instead of developing a more stylized way of singing, phrasing, and interpreting the lyric the way storytellers like Shirley Horn, Jean Carne, and Bettye LaVette did when their voices evolved with time, as will happen to most every singer by their 60s. Adams instead chooses to power through with the exact same approach that she performed with 25 years ago, but without the fullness that made what Adams can do great. While there are moments of emotive flourish and hushed notes dotting the project’s 10-track terrain, as a whole the leaden set never really lifts from the ground, despite Adams best efforts. Her shaky belts, abbreviated sustains, and sameness of phrasing just gives too many opportunities for impact away.

    Again, this is veteran Oleta Adams, so it’s certainly not all doom and gloom, and many will be satisfied with just hearing her familiar tone again. And, there are a couple of surprising moments, like Nina Simone’s “Do I Move You?” If it goes on a bit too long, Adams’s take on Simone’s blues here proves more forgiving than the smooth jazz material. The cut loosens Adams up and appears to bolsters her confidence. Here, she’s not trying to be the sultry chanteuse of old, but a fresh character with a story to tell. Blues as a genre tends to privilege raw, more imperfect readings, making every quiver in Adams voice an inspired one. Her presence here is commanding and powerful, more so than the limited band surrounding her on the cut. 

    On Third Set, the covers are not all belonging to others; some are of Adams herself. As Dionne Warwick learned in her attempts to cover her own youthful material decades past her prime, Adams too may learn that covering her own standards of “Evolution” and “Rhythm of Life” as acoustic renditions invite a comparison that does her no favors.

    Indeed most of the Muzak and tepid jazz-pop production decisions on the plodding Third Set like that of Bob Dylan’s now dragging “Blowing In The Wind” undercuts what the star is selling. The frustrating set makes you beg for seasoned producers like Johnny Mandel, Craig Street, or even LaVette herself (whose production of Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook ensured we know her as more than just a singer) to get their hands on a talent like Adams and help her evolve with the ample instrument she’s working with now versus what stunningly worked before. While Adams is indisputably better than plenty of young singers performing today, the measuring stick is Adams herself, and on Third Set she’s simply not measuring up to her potential. The saddest part is that unlike the soon-to-be-forgotten piano bar singer whose options end there, Adams still has the abilities to go so much further still than what is suggested by what we hope won’t be her final set. Mildly Recommended.

    By L. Michael Gipson