As ever, Take 6’s ability to harmonize produces gorgeous results on its new CD, The Standard.
Admired throughout the group’s career for its unique sound, even as that sound is based on various influences that preceded it, Take 6 has undertaken a departure in several respects on The Standard. For one thing, Take 6 had departured from the exclusively spiritual content of some of its earlier Reprise and self-produced recordings (though the spirituality of the music’s feeling remains constant). Instead, Take 6 has broadened its appeal by recording jazz standards and pop songs, which brings us to the second means of departure...the guest artists.
Even though Take 6 has performed with numerous jazz and pop musicians and singers throughout it 28-years of existence, the group took the rare step of inviting top-shelf featured jazz musicians and singers for participation, including George Benson, Jon Hendricks, Roy Hargrove and Al Jarreau.
And perhaps the rationale for Take 6’s change of direction results from its change of labels to Heads Up International. The creative inspiration driving The Standard has made it even more accessible as it recalls some of the high points of jazz recordings past, and even includes some olique political commentary.
For instance, Take 6 takes on nothing less than Ella Fitzgerald’s legendary recording of "A Tisket A Tasket" by providing their own accompaniment. Not only does the two-and-a-half-minute track provide insight to the influences that shaped Take 6’s improvisational work, but also it makes obvious the eternal freshness of Fitzgerald’s voice, now reminded by the back-up by one of the most popular of present-day jazz groups. Appropriately, Take 6 includes a tribute to one of the primary shapers of its sound, Gene Puerling, who passed away in 2008. The broad harmonies that Puerling wrote for The Hi-Lo’s and Singers Unlimited remain memorable for the remarkable originality of the sound and the ability of his arrangements, to highlight the beauty of the human voice as they made standards departures for harmonic adventure. So does Take 6. As did Puerling, Take 6 moves a song, often ordinary in other singers’ approaches, through several stages. "Shall We Gather at the River" starts as an a capella choir reference at the beginning, eventually highlighting Claude McKnight’s fervent departure over vocal accompaniment, inserting a gentle swing, building chords one note at a time until their chiming fullness results, recalling some gospel roots, widening the group’s range from strolling bass lines to right-on-pitch treble melodic lead and concluding with dramatic narrative fulfillment.
The wry political allusions? Coincidentally enough, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and as New Orleans endures Hurricane Gustav (on September 1, 2008), I hear Aaron Neville singing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" with Take 6. What was meant as an ironic reverie about the effects of Katrina (for much of the Ninth Ward remains underpopulated, where not abandoned) now carries even greater weight, despite the insouciance of Mark Kibble’s arrangement. "...I miss it each night and day. / I know I’m not wrong. / The feeling’s getting stronger / The longer I stay away." Take 6 wordlessly forms its own band of vocalized instruments while Neville reminiscences about his hometown. The other political reference, slyly unexpected, occurs after Joey Kibble assumes the voice of Kermit the Frog, who wistfully complains about "Bein’ Green." He receives encouragement from Cedric Dent and the rest of Take 6 because "green is kinda cool." Convinced, Kermit/Joey decides, "Well, green is cool.... There’s the Hulk. The Grinch. I even like green eggs and ham. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be something if someday the country had a green President? Hmm. A President of color."
The Standard contains much more. The guest musicians and vocalists add variety to some of the arrangements, like George Benson’s homage to Nat Cole on "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Mark Kibble and Dent’s complex arrangement stresses the bass-sung "you should.... fly right" as the vamp upon which the voices build a matrix of "I wish you would fly right" and "straighten up you better fly right." Their version of "Seven Steps to Heaven" is equally inimitable as the arrangement uses the concept of "seven" as the vocal hook for the sextet’s back-up of Jon Hendricks as he sings his own words, of Al Jarreau’s scatting and of Till Brönner’s understated Miles-inspired solo. Brian McKnight joins Take 6 for an purely vocal version of "What’s Going On," still suggesting some gospel origins and taking advantage of the opportunities the song presents such as the smooth ascending harmonies, the call-and-response aptness and the signature cries inherent in the song.
Take 6’s standard of quality has remained so high throughout the group’s existence because, says Claude McKnight, "We go into every project saying it will be the best...we’ve ever done." The Standard presents Take 6 in an environment, and with resources, that previously were not heard on its recordings. For many reasons, it is the best they’ve ever done. Such continuous excellence seems eventually to falter, but instead Take 6 just keeps getting better.