The members of Take 6 come down the stairs at New York’s Blue Note jazz club in November of 2018, wireless microphones in hand and creating a complete orchestra of funk with their voices as they walk. They’re having fun. Alvin Chea’s resonant bass thumps and leaps as vocal percussion clips and whooshes. They slide through a narrow aisle, brushing the backs of fans sitting at tables as they smile and then ease up onto a stage set with six stools and, almost an afterthought, a couple of keyboards and guitars. The bracing harmonies of the group’s several tenors ring with jazz tension, sounding like a horn section for Earth, Wind and Fire or, well, the Count Basie band.
Once they’re in place, the six gentlemen singers—just barely out of college when they won their first three Grammys in 1988—settle in and begin a Beatles song, Paul McCartney’s “Got to Get You into My Life”. As it appeared on Revolver in 1966, the tune was a nod to the Motown or Stax sound, with a closely recorded horn section blasting the tune’s signature lick. You probably know the song too well, The Beatles’ version, so the last thing you may want is a cover version of a tune that’s now over 50 years old. But it’s what these singers do to the old song that grabs you. The horn lick is there, sure, clear and true, and McCartney’s divine melody, but the guts of song have been filled with a magic that only Take 6 can bring: luminous extended harmonies that light up a song with a combination of jazz stratosphere and gospel earth.
Thirty years earlier, back when the debut Take 6 was released, you were in a small auditorium at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., waiting to hear an a cappella group that was supposed to be like no other—not some bop-do-wop bunch of college boys singing “Blue Moon”, but a group that was bringing Ray Charles-level originality to the format. The place was only partly full as the curtain opened to reveal six slim guys with their backs to the audience. “Ba-doom boom-boom” was repeated with rubbery swing and accompanied by finger snaps as the first song started. “Get away Jordan” was sung cooly over subtly harmonized “ooooh”s, followed by a chorus in tight gospel harmony over a walking bass. The singers, however, still had their backs to you, even as they spun scintillating “bop!”s and slippery parallel harmonies climbing up toward their falsettos. More than two minutes into the performance, you’re still look at their backs, swaying, arms choreographed out to their sides a bit, and you’re thinking …? Then the music starts to wind into greater complexity, the lines spinning and the tension rising in the harmony as the six voices glide up to an explosion: “GET BACK JORRRRR-DAN!” is sung like an upper octave jazz trumpet section. At that moment all six guys spin around to face the audience at once and the whole room exhales.
Over those 30 years, Take 6 would prove that they are, as Quincy Jones once called them, “the baddest vocal cats on the planet”. Indeed, their awards tally is impressive: eight Grammys (on 24 nominations in the jazz, soul/gospel, gospel, R&B, and pop categories) and ten Dove awards (the gospel Grammys). And, because they are arguably the most high profile background singers available—essentially the “Tower of Power Horns of singing”—they have collaborated with the best: Ray Charlies, Stevie Wonder, Don Henley, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Al Jarreau, Nnenna Frelon, k.d. lang, the Manhattan Transfer, Brian McKnight, Cece Winans, Marcus Miller and of course, Quincy Jones.
Most notably, the group has no imitators. There’s a decent argument that they were a influence on some of the vocal harmony “boy bands” of the ’90s (mainly Boyz II Men, with whom they recorded the do-wop track “A Thousand Miles Away”), and the relatively recent a cappella group Straight, No Chaser comes close, but perhaps only because Take 6’s Mark Kibble has produced their work. The oldest working vocal harmony group in jazz is the Manhattan Transfer, a four-voice group that masters tricky harmonies. But not only is Take 6 surely 50 percent more complex in its arrangements, but the blend in their voices is vastly superior; they sound like a single ingenious instrument while the Transfer sounds like a cool blend of four voices that rub against each other.
In fact, the truly complex harmonies that are commonplace in any Take 6 performance are either beyond the ability of most vocal groups or not to their taste. Take 6 is built from four tenors, each capable of astonishing flights of falsetto singing in soprano range, one baritone, and one bass. As a result, the group builds harmonies that include the “weird notes” that are common in jazz (a flat 9, a sharp 11) and, properly voiced, give jazz harmonies their hip swagger. Take 6 sets these vocal harmonies in a brilliant, ringing sonority. So, for example, if you listen to the tune “I’ve Got Life” from the band’s third album Join the Band (1994), you hear a relatively conventional gospel melody over a walking bass part, but the sung chords and accompaniment to the lead vocal is shot through with those luminous chords. To hear them unadulterated, dig the last 30 seconds of the arrangement by Mark Kibble, the band’s essential musical architect, where he shows them off by themselves—the inside notes of the chords slip-sliding from dissonance to candy, making them that much more tangy. No other singing group can do it like that.
Show Business Limitations
The history of Take 6 is unusual—both a fairy tale and a story of limits. The group started as a college a cappella group from Alabama that was mainly doing gospel music. Their audition for a record label was so breathtaking that they were recorded by Warner Brothers and marketed beyond a niche. Grammys followed, then a second album, So Much 2 Say, as astonishing as the first in 1990 (with another Grammy). In quick succession their music was featured in films, on awards shows, and they found themselves recording with legends. Their fourth recording, 1994’s Join the Band, found them backing none other than Ray Charles on one track and Stevie Wonder on another, while setting up Queen Latifah for a feature on a third.
At some point, however, the market clearly spoke to the commercial limits of an a cappella gospel group that didn’t have a single “star” at its center. From the start, of course, Take 6 had performed the classic gospel singer’s slight of hand, turning songs of religious devotion into songs of love. And the long history of modern soul music coming from gospel roots meant that Take 6’s music always sounded a good bit like R&B. Despite that, by their third album, a quick Christmas disc called He Is Christmas (1991), there’s a band—the very fine but certainly smooth-jazz-ish bthe Yellowjackets—on a cut. The next recording (1994’s Join the Band) put slick funk-lite instrumentation on about half the tracks.
Their fifth recording in 1996 ( Brothers, presumably a reference to the heavy hand that R&B start Brian McKnight had in the production—as Brian is the brother of Take 6 member Claude McKnight) found the a cappella gospel/jazz group significantly submerged in smooth jazz and R&B instrumentation. Most tellingly, the first track is a cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Sing a Song” on which Take 6 sounds less like themselves than like Earth, Wind, and Fire imitators. For a band as original as Take 6, this seems like a sin of no small measure.
Perhaps the other reason that Take 6 had this somewhat sallow period ties back to the ubiquity of “smooth jazz” in the ’90s. This instrumental funk-lite thrived in radio formats in the ’80s and ’90s and was a path to prosperity for many musicians. For example, saxophonist Gerald Albright appears on Brothers—Albright was a studio musician in Los Angeles with real jazz chops who played with a blend of jazz musicians on the edge of pop (Patrice Rushen, Jeff Lorber) and real pop stars: Whitney Houston, Teena Marie, Chaka Khan, and Phil Collins. His 1994 album was titled Smooth. Take 6’s sound was so slick in its blend that it’s easy to see how combining them with this world would work.
At times this approach made sense. Take 6 toured in the ’90s, for example, with the singer Al Jarreau, who started singing a kind of jazz in the ’70s (for example, his version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” is a hip thing). Jarreau had a band that bridged “smooth”, “jazz”, and R&B, but his energy was playful and his art was full of improvisation; the blend worked. But as a Variety review of a 1997 show at the Greek Theater points out, Jarreau was okay, the middle set by the execrable smooth jazz saxophonist was “dull”, but Take 6 “was its usual uplifting self … uncanny … all logical and engrossing, deserving of a much wider audience.” There’s a decent argument, in fact, that it was Take 6 that lifted Jarreau to his best work rather than Jarreau lifting Take 6 to a larger audience, as this 2011 collaboration on Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven” suggests.
For too long, however, the group sounded lost on its recordings, veiled behind music that’s slick but goopy, whereas their singing is slick and scintillating, gorgeous and heart-tugging.
The new millennium offers some hope. In 2002, the band did its best work with instrumental backing by turning to the superb production skills of bassist Marcus Miller on Beautiful, a collection of smart pop hits by Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, and Donny Hathaway, each truly transformed by the band’s singular approach. Yeah, you’ve heard “People Get Ready” plenty of times, but the usual harmonic approach of Take 6 changes it fundamentally for the better. Similarly, the band rewrites the lyrics to Fagen’s “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” and then revoices those glorious Steely Dan harmonies to create something new. It’s a terrific recording, but even here, the coolest thing is probably the Take 6 version of the classic standard “Wade in the Water”, which is the track that relies least on Miller and his playing and production.
The truth remained: Take 6 was at its best when it sang its dazzling blend of gospel, jazz, and soul without gimmicks.
The Beautiful Hybridity of Six Voices
Back at the Blue Note this recent November, what should show up in the set but that very arrangement of “Wade in the Water”. Though band members play keyboards and guitar on a few tunes—for example, a delicate arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”—the show is overwhelming organic and joyous: six voices in the purest sense, but not singing any kind of “pure” music. We can hear the gospel strong and clear in “Wade” but there’s gut-level soul in the band’s arrangement of “Stand by Me” and the shimmer of jazz in all the harmonies as well as the sense of improvisational risk as the singers fire off extemporaneous scat lines here and there.
Not that the show is any kind of exercise in nostalgia or tradition.
The friend who accompanied me to the show is a bigger fan of Madonna than of Miles Davis or Yolanda Adams, but she was utterly won over by the group—yes, by the pop covers of Eric Clapton and the band’s playful few minutes perfectly mimicking the Bee Gees (“Stayin’ Alive”) and Michael Jackson, but mainly by the passion and beauty in the singing. The musical conception of Take 6 comes from the heart of at least two American musical traditions that permeate the popular music of the last 65 years, and this DNA at the center of the group allows them to work organically with all kinds of popular music without having to gloss it up with synthesizers or drum machines.
It’s no surprise that the first record they self-produced after leaving a major label, Feels Good, was a return to a cappella singing. While subsequent recordings would sometimes mix in instruments and varying degrees of commercial outreach, this approach would define the next decade for the group. The Standard (2008) takes on a full program of jazz standards for the first time with some cool guest lead singers (George Benson, Aaron Neville), and Believe (2016) is a deeper dive into spiritual music. All the while, the group has been out there singing for folks.
The most recent Take 6 recording from early in 2018, Iconic, is about as good and pure as it gets, though the songs are popular material you already know. What Take 6 does consistently is make this material theirs. Their version of the Jesse Harris tune made famous by Norah Jones, “Don’t Know Why”, has a lovely lead, but it’s the shimmering backing arrangement that stakes a claim. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” by The Spinners develops a delicious and funky call and response between the lead and the a cappella response. Their version of Jarreau’s “Roof Garden” is flat-out superior to the original. And they redeem that mushy Christopher Cross tune “Sailing” by giving it a doo-wop soul that the original, frankly, doesn’t deserve.
Whether singing traditional gospel tunes or the tangiest pop tunes, Take 6 is about the artistry of vocal arrangement and vocal blend, summing up the entire history of American music across the last century. The group is a treasure, still living and singing before us.
Incredibly, Take 6 sounds as lithe and alive in 2018 as they did in 1988. Thirty years have robbed them of only one thing: their ability to take our breath away for the first time like they did the first time we heard them.