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Oleta Adams circles back to cabaret roots

Oleta Adams has two career-defining songs, but you will only hear one of them this weekend.

She is sure to do “Get Here” with her quartet on Friday and Saturday at Cabaret Jazz inside The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. That one was written and first recorded by Brenda Russell, but made into a bigger hit by Adams in 1991, when it was thematically tied to troops serving in the Gulf War.

But those outside her home city of Kansas City first heard Adams on the opening track of Tears for Fears’ “The Seeds of Love” album, on “Woman in Chains.”

That’s the one she doesn’t do anymore.

Yes, it’s the hallmark of her work with the British group — which, as it happens, plays the Palms on Dec. 13 — that raised her to national prominence after hearing her in a Kansas City cabaret.

Adams sang in a Hyatt Regency where visiting concert acts often stayed. “I always had people come to hear me who were famous artists, and my thought was ‘Give them space, let them relax,’ ” she says of not actually meeting the Tears guys.

But two years later, Tears frontman Roland Orzabal rang her up and told her, “You have more feeling with three people onstage than what we had with all that equipment and all those people.”

Orzabal invited Adams to sing on “Chains” and later produced her big-selling major-label debut, “Circle of One.”

“I still love hearing it, and I thought that was some of the best singing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says of “Woman in Chains,” “a great historical moment for me.”

But how often does she sing it?

“Never, ever.”

The Smith Center show will remind us Adams is an interpreter, a singer-pianist who covered “Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, gospel, show tunes” in the early years of “a career that goes through almost every genre.”

But she leaves that one alone.

“Unless you have that male voice to sing against, singing the two parts wouldn’t make sense. Some things just don’t translate well, and I am smart enough to know that in selecting songs for myself. Rather than give a bad representation of a good song, it’s easier to not do it.”

Note even Andre Agassi, who pretty much gets what he wants in the name of charity when it comes to his annual “Grand Slam” benefit concert, could make it happen.

Adams says that when Tears partners Orzabal and Curt Smith reunited for the 2003 Grand Slam benefit, the show was to include “Woman” as a special request from Agassi.

But the all-star band assembled by David Foster “didn’t look at the music until soundcheck,” she recalls with a laugh. “It didn’t sound exactly like the record, so even though I was there and had changed my schedule (to fly in), they decided not to do the song. They said, “Oleta, just do ‘Get Here.’ ”

Adams’ pop stardom yielded two more albums, but they reflected the familiar story of once-powerful record labels trying to mold an artist to material instead of the other way around. “You have no idea how hard you have to fight to just put your music out,” she says. “Once you have success, it’s ‘We know best what she does and what she should sing.’ ”

Now she doesn’t worry so much about recording, but stays busy with her quartet (including drummer-husband John Cushon) and singing with jazz orchestras and symphonies.

“The way I feel about it, it just feels good to make music on your own today without people being threatening or whatever. At this point, my desire for that kind of success is different. I can’t imagine what I would need more of than what I already have.”

And that works both ways. “We work all our lives to try to get the major success so you can play larger places, then our fans want us to play intimate places again,” she says with a laugh. “And I’m very happy to do that.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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