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'Melody' Maker

Devoted Diva:Yolanda Adams believes in solutions, not problems

Yolanda Adams uses pop to sell her gospel faith

By Nicky Baxter

"I've always believed you should appeal to everybody," says gospel diva Yolanda Adams, "the older people--the dads, pop-music lovers, jazz lovers--everybody." Growing up, Adams realized that people's musical tastes were not monolithic. Save for the sanctimonious minority, the church community has always switched on some form of secular music radio. It's natural that such music would make its mark on the gospel artists--just as gospel music is fundamental to most forms of this country's musical heritage.

More Than Melody, Adams' new album, pays homage to the great black gospel tradition, complete with magisterial organ and swelling call-and-response choral interpolations. But the disc also bristles with contemporary vitality, shifting unselfconsciously from hard-swinging new jack to jazzy balladeering. The album's pop patina doesn't disguise the fact that Adams' music is guided by her religious convictions. As she says, "Never underestimate where I'm going, because just when you think I'm going off the deep end into the jazz thing, I might come right back and shock you with stone traditional [nonsecular music]."

Considering Adams' border-transgressing style, it is hardly a surprise that music was practically a second language in her household when she was growing up. First and foremost, there were the modern gospel sounds of James Cleveland and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. There was also music whose roots sprang forth from the church but whose raison d'etre was rather more expansive. "I grew up listening to jazz, symphonic music, R&B," she recalls. "And my mother was a music major [in college], so I heard everything from Al Green to Chopin."

Later, Adams developed a particular fondness for the music of Stevie Wonder and Nancy Wilson. The Wonder touch can be heard in the vocalist's idiosyncratic phrasing on compositions like "Take Away," while Wilson's quiet pyrotechnics can be detected on "The Good Shepherd." Elsewhere, Anita Baker's proto-neo-classic style can be gleaned. Throughout, however, the album's ineluctable spiritual undertow informs its secular motifs. "What About the Children" sums up the album's thematic core. Despite its Hallmark-card sentimentality and faintly maudlin musical presentation, the Bebe Winan-penned tune is undeniably earnest.

Indeed, the album's liner notes, written by Adams, make the artist's concerns and commitment explicit. Though she has no children of her own, kids have always played a central role in her life. "I taught elementary school for seven years. It was a really positive experience--seeing kids from different backgrounds, different cultures and races. They all had one thing in common: the desire to please and succeed." When I suggest that vast numbers of today's youth face a multitude of obstacles leading to diminishing options, she is quick to correct what she views is a societal misconception. "There's a difference between 'obstacles' and 'issues'" affecting children, she maintains. "Issues might include being a single parent, or having both parents working all day," in effect reducing drastically the amount of time families spend together. (We never do get to "obstacles.")

Adams says she's weary of politicians and media harping about the dilemmas confronting this nation's youth. She is convinced that thanks to their incessant problem-peddling, the public has bought a faulty bill of goods. Adams, on the other hand, is sold on solutions. We'd all be better off, she says, "if we just attack the problems instead of just talking about them." To that end, Adams is affiliated with Fila athletic-wear company's community-outreach division, taking her message of uplift into the classroom.

Yolanda Adams performs Saturday (March 23) at 7pm at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $21.50. (408/366-1910)

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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