Take Six: Feels Good

[5 April 2006]

By Will Layman

I remember the first time I heard Take Six sing.  Reagan was still in office, the first Take Six album had just come out, and they were appearing in a small auditorium at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Maybe there were 150 people in the room, tops.  They had their backs to the audience, and they started singing “Get Away, Jordan”—very quietly.  Though they were just six voices singing a gospel song in tight harmony, the rhythm was firmly established.  They were singing in a mostly lower register, and they sounded quite traditional.

Suddenly, they spun to face us, zoomed into their falsettos and struck a brilliant six-toned jazz chord—“Get back, Jo-oh-ohr-daaaaan!”—that made them seem like a six-man reincarnation of the Count Basie horn section circa 1955.  The audience collectively lost its breath, and we didn’t get it back until their performance had ended.

In no time at all, these six brilliant singers (who largely met and formed at Alabama’s Oakwood College) had won Grammys in both the gospel and jazz vocal categories.  Their roots are in doo-wop and older vocal ensemble traditions as well as jazz and gospel, and they seemed to emerge wholly formed as the most accomplished and versatile a cappella group ever.  In addition, history suggests they were obvious precursors to (and betters of) the boy bands soon to come, collaborating with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones to show how ensemble singing could fit into pop music again.

And perhaps that has been Take Six’s problem since 1988.  Their very first recording was a masterpiece—a completely realized amalgam of jazz, doo-wop, and gospel that defied category and could barely be improved upon.  In the years that have followed, the group has recorded variations on the original (the follow-up in 1990, So Much 2 Say and 2000’s So Cool) and various departures, including combining their voices with various instruments or studio manipulation (Join the Band from 1994 and their last disc, Beautiful World).  They’ve taken on holiday repertoire and pop songs.  But have they ever done anything as sublime as “Get Away, Jordan”?  Probably not.

But this new one, Feels Good, is a fine effort and one of Take Six’s most satisfying records since the first.  All of the group’s work has been strictly Christian in message and lyric, whether interpreting traditional songs, writing their own songs, or altering and interpreting pop songs.  Here again, Take Six deliver inspirational messages in the form of singing that is boldly soulful and snap-sharp.  Nearly every African-American music tradition and singing tradition is blended into the group’s style.  For example, the opener includes traces of calypso amidst the soul/gospel base.  For me, of course, nothing Take Six does will ever be as brilliant as that spin move on the stage of the Museum of American History.  But the point is: this album is no less accomplished than the group’s debut.  It’s brilliant.  Again.

“This Is Another Day” is vintage Take Six: a swinging 4/4 groove held up by finger-snaps and immaculate bass singing, a string of soulful leads in constant conversation with the ensemble, and a feeling of perfect balance in a complex arrangement that effortlessly changes key and grows increasingly more exciting over time.  Cedric Dent’s arrangement of the gospel classic “Lamb of God” is a wonderful example of how Take Six transforms the great stuff to make it more harmonically complex and soulful without disrespecting the original material.  While it starts with a somewhat sharp (or even mock) traditionalism, the arrangement develops ingeniously through several levels of playfulness.  By the end (and despite some excessive studio reverb), you’re likely to think: Man, Take Six has taken their thing to another level.

A couple of tunes are not typical Take Six.  “Set U Free” (an original by Claude McKnight and arranged by Mark Kibble) is a bossa nova with generous vocal percussion buoying the proceedings.  “Just in Time” is the rare Take Six cover of a jazz standard, arranged for maximum originality by Mr, Dent.  The band adds a few production details (particularly an “old radio broadcast” sound on the initial lead vocal) to a chart that includes doorbell chimes, straight block chord swing, a bass solo that quotes from “As Time Goes By”, and various expressive vocal effects that make the track somehow different from what you may expect without sounding like any band other than Take Six.

The group uses one instrument, an acoustic guitar, on the traditional “I’ll Never Turn Back No More”.  It is a very interesting effect—and not at all like the band’s previous use of instruments.  The guitar line is simple and played by member Dave Thomas over the wordless accompaniment of the singers.  Not a pop effect or a reach for widening the band’s listener base, this tactic comes off like the whole of the album.  Feels Good is a mature settling in—and proof that Take Six, now well beyond years of gimmicks and experimentation, are a history-best singing group that is in this for the long haul.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/take_six_feels_good/