The brilliant gospel a cappella group tackles jazz and soul standards with sharp guests.
Is there a form of music more corny than contemporary a cappella singing? Every college has a half dozen of these groups, all doing their barbershop stuff or their novelty tunes, or maybe copping some arrangements by Rockappella, the group best known for taking Ivy League goofiness and using it to sell Folger's Coffee and a PBS kids show.
Then there is Take 6.
Formed at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, Take 6 is a vocal sextet grounded in the gospel tradition, but tricked out with sumptuous jazz harmonies and a propulsive sense of swing. The group has a unique sound: utterly smooth in tone, but with a penetrating set of high harmonies that make the group sound like a falsetto-fied version of the Count Basie brass section. Jazz and pop fans paid attention from the start -- even with the group's eponymous first album in 1988 being strictly gospel music in lyric content. Since then, Take 6 has amassed ten original albums, ten Grammy awards, and collaborations with folks like Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Ray Charles.
Despite the adulation from jazz and soul audiences (including seven consecutive years atop the Downbeat polls for jazz singing), Take 6 had never truly recorded straight jazz or soul on their own. The new album, The Standard sets out to correct this oversight. The result, while mixed, is winning and largely sensational.
Most of the material on The Standard features special guests who are exceedingly well integrated with the group. When working with other artists -- for example, when they accompanied Stevie Wonder at August's Democratic National Convention -- Take 6 is a brilliant backing group. And here the band cleverly mixes in guest spots that can enhance the group's approach to these different styles. They bring in guitarist and singer George Benson for "Straighten Up and Fly Right", with Benson sounding just enough like Nat Cole to connect to the history of the tune. Benson is tart as well as smooth, and his guitar is used to add extra contrast and swing. Take 6 is not context to recreate an old sound, however, so they gently reharmonize the tune and lift the energy to another level with their superb dynamic control.
A different guest produces a different, if wonderful, result. For Miles Davis's "Seven Steps to Heaven", the group brings in the veteran vocalese bopper Jon Hendricks, with his fuzzy, skittering delivery. Also, Al Jarreau takes the first "solo", putting his cabernet throat on the Davis improvisation, and trumpeter Till Bronner is fleet and engaging despite some electronic jiggering with his horn.
Technology plays a bigger role with the group's most august jazz guest, Ella Fitzgerald. Her classic 1938 version of "A Tisket, A Tasket" was a girlish hit song, and here Take 6 has sampled her vocal and arranged a brilliant new vocal accompaniment. With a preexisting lead vocal, the trick of managing an original arrangement is considerable, but the group meets the challenge, swinging the track effortlessly, particularly in the last minute, where Ella syncopates her lead. As much as I want to reject this kind of grave-robbing, this track is a winner.
On the soul side, the pairing of Take 6 with Aaron Neville is just about perfect on "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans". Neville's sometimes-mannered delivery is offset by the sextet's easy grace, and there is a lovely moment when they all go into an imitation of a Dixieland band, then shift home again. Using Brian McKnight (brother of Take 6er Claude McKnight) on "What's Goin' On" is natural as can be. Whatever danger there is in doing a cappella arrangements of purely classic rock-era songs is dodged here. Take 6 manages to evoke the original in every way that matters while still making clear that this is a new kind of celebration.
Not everything on The Standard works utterly. "Back to You" is an original soul tune with somewhat generic synth accompaniment, and while the vocal harmonies remain distinctive, the package loses its sense of unique urgency. "Grace" is a Quincy Jones composition rendered wordlessly in soaring harmony but, again, with fairly bland R&B instrumental backing. Not to dismiss everything that isn't a cappella. "Someone to Watch Over Me" sets up Shelea Frazier on lead vocal and backs her with drums, bass, guitar and also Roy Hargrove in a trumpet arrangement. On this one, the instrumental style is contemporary gospel rather than the quiet storm, and the combination seems less dumbed-down or bland.
The heart of The Standard, thankfully, remains six great singers blending perfectly on utterly original arrangements that come plainly from gospel singing, but that are so deeply infused with jazz and soul styles that the result is timeless. Perhaps the finest track here is a hip transformation of Michel LeGrand's "Windmills of Your Mind", which finds the group effortlessly moving through complex harmonies while sustaining a mood of introspection. For sheer fun, the Take 6 take on "Sweet Georgia Brown" seems like an instant classic -- one part Harlem Globetrotters and three parts genius as the group passes the melody around to several soloists and then busts it open in Basie-esque blared ensemble harmony. The goofball "Bein' Green" (right, the Muppets tune by Joe Raposo) works: super tricky singing merged with a nutty little skit that takes advantage of the current interest in "green" environmental culture as well as the notion of a "president of color". At two minues and four seconds, the track sidesteps seeming cloying. And "Shall We Gather at the River" is a slice of traditional gospel singing, and it's good to find it here as well.
For with Take 6, even when the guys are singing beyond their roots, those roots are always there. I find it difficult to believe that the group has been ringing in my ears for 20 years now. In 1988 I heard them sing "Get Away, Jordan" in a tiny auditorium, and when they hit their first big jazz chord -- each of the six voices on a different ringing tone -- it was as if every ear in the room was stunned and seduced. Ten albums and two decades later, they prove to still sound original and to still be mesmerizing. It's a joy to hear that sound work so easily and generously in jazz and soul, styles that need the new/old vocal magic of Take 6.