When Take 6 dropped their self-titled debut in 1988, contemporary R&B and gospel were both at crossroads and the idea of an a cappella gospel group didn't promise to find the group any kind of footing among genres clearly in flux. Take 6's sound meshed the traditions of the classic black gospel quartet (folks like the Soul Stirrers, the Mighty Cloud of Joy, and the Dixie Hummingbirds) and the street corner doo-wop groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whether or not their debut was better tailored for the 1950s, the fact of the matter was that tracks like the original "Gold Mine" would have found an audience in any era. But what set Take 6 apart from those genres was the fact they were products of the post-soul cum hip-hop era and the Grammy Award winning "Spread Love" (1988) from their debut proved that doo-wop, gospel quartets, and beat boxes could share the same sonic space. 14 years, nine discs and seven Grammy Awards later, Take 6 has returned with their first studio project in four years. Beautiful World is arguably the most accomplished recording of their charmed career.
Produced by bassist Marcus Miller, Beautiful World is a fabulous collection of "standards" ranging from traditional gospel compositions to classic soul tracks from Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Donny Hathaway. The title track is surprisingly taken from Donald Fagen's oh so cool, "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)" (Nightfly, 1982). Take 6 adds new lyrics to the song, gently pushing aside Fagen's biting satire, for a more universal message of uplift. Take 6 recorded without instrumentation until their fourth disc Join the Band (1994), which featured a stunning version of Ambrosia's "Biggest Part of Me". At the time they faced some criticism (ironically) for capitulating to trends, but "Beautiful World" is a reminder why the group should not be boxed into an a cappella or "Christian" music style. Equally surprising (and pleasing) is the group's rendition of Peter Gabriel's (with Kate Bush) "Don't Give Up", (So, 1986) which turns the song into a gospel celebration courtesy of Joey Kibble's lead vocals and a backing choir that includes members of the group Virtue. Take 6 also provides a thoughtful read of Sting's "Fragile".
Ironically, Take 6 seems less inspired on some of their remakes of classic soul songs. Their version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" -- a logical choice for them -- seems flat and sluggish, whereas their take on the traditional "Wade in the Water" swings like a parody of jazz a cappella. The group redeems itself big time with their funky opening version of the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' it to the Streets" (1976). No dis to the Doobie original (Michael MacDonald's vocals obliterate a bunch of melanin myths), but Take 6's version, featuring David Sanborn, is the funkiest since Luther Vandross and Gwen Guthrie took it to another level on Quincy Jones' Stuff Like That (1978).
Perhaps Take 6 tries to funk too hard on Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands", continuing the trend of artists like Will Downing and Gladys Knight who should have left well enough (and Withers' song) alone. "Grandma's Hand's" is one of two Withers' original on the disc and Take 6 does considerable justice to Withers' "Lovely Day", as the singer-songwriter continues to get props from the post-soul generation. The little known Stevie Wonder classic "Love's in Need of Love Today" (the song opens Songs in the Key of Life (1975) is given a new coat of G-Funk, via Miller's solid production and cameos by saxophonist Kirk Whalum and trumpeter Michael "Patches" Stewart.
Much of the same attention that has been given to Wonder and Withers among post-soul artists is also lavished on the legacy of Donny Hathaway (Dave Hollister and Musiq are just two examples). In this regard, the best track on Beautiful World may well be Take 6's version of Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free". The song, which is one of a handful of legitimate modern standards, has been recorded by a bunch of folk including Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys (the Tribute to Heroes show), though Bobby Womack and Wilton Felder's version from the latter's Inherit the Wind is in my opinion the finest. Mark Kibbble's vocal arrangements on the Take 6 version give the song fresh feel, though it's Kibble's lead vocals with Lalah Hathaway (daughter of the legend) that makes their version so striking . Lalah Hathaway of course recorded two solid discs in the early 1990s, but fell victim to Motown's cluelessness at promoting her and the "lite, bright, and thin" rule in the music industry. Most recently featured on disc by Joe Sample and Meshell Ndegeocello, Hathaway gets the chance to show off her sensuous and husky vocals on "Someday We'll All be Free".
Beautiful World is a beautiful and at times brilliant return by Take 6 -- one that proves why they are among the most innovative and accomplished vocalists and arrangers in contemporary pop music.