Since its inception in the New Testament church, singing without accompaniment - also known as a cappella - has impacted many church congregations and various cultures from Jewish to South Asian. As a cappella progressed into the twentieth century, it began to infiltrate various musical genres.
Whether it was the swagger and syncopation of barbershop quartets, the complexities of soulfully charged doo-wop or the classical and jazz traditions of college and university glee clubs, a cappella has maintained its integrity and special place in vocal music history, despite its sometimes lack of viable commercial appeal. Professionally, there are several established a cappella bands that cater to different tastes, like the eclecticism of The Bobs, the elegance of world music by Sweet Honey in the Rock and the dazzling ‘vocal play’ from Naturally 7. In the past two decades, college and university based ensembles have increased in number and stepped up their game, breaking the traditional boundaries with the incorporation of more rock and R&B in their repertoire. Thanks to The Sing Off, the reality talent contest now in its third season, a cappella is slowly blossoming to a more mainstream phenomenon for professional and college ensembles. But for more three decades there has been a stalwart group that has maintained both critical and commercial acclaim, winning countless major awards and gaining millions of fans in the process: Take 6.
Take 6, birthed from Oakwood College in Alabama over thirty years ago, has undoubtedly served as an ambassador of a cappella’s small mainstream. The group’s intricate six-part harmonies and precise rhythmic backbone completely defy description; from the humorous reconstruction of the Dr. Seuss novelty piece, “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” to the cool jazzy breeze engulfing the early twentieth century spiritual, “Mary (Don’t You Weep).” Though the sextet augments with instrumentation from time to time, Take 6’s vocal dexterity and depth clearly registers more success when the members choose a cappella-friendly arrangements. Take 6’s longevity also speaks for itself with few personnel changes during their recording career starting in 1987. The current lineup consists of Alvin Chea, Joey Kibble, Mark Kibble, Claude V. McKnight III, David Thomas and Khristian Dentley, who recently replaced long-time member/co-producer Cedric Dent.
Their latest for Shanachie Entertainment, One, primarily concentrates on spiritual and gospel standards as framed by Take 6’s razor sharp harmonies and riveting lead vocals. The traditional quartet tradition is covered on the lively “Down Here I’ve Done My Best” (Selah Jubilee Singers), anchored by several different lead vocalists and “You’re Gonna Need Him” (Swan Silvertones), fueled by plenty of call and response. The title track uses numerical examples to make a point, such as the number of people on a football team, Raisin Bran’s famous two scoops, and numbers that signify the death of a risen Savior: “It only took one cross with three nails / one Man / three days to satisfy the ransom for my soul.”
The mood echoed in the jazzy-spiced title track matches the equally entertaining video setting at a family bar-b-q. Stevie joins Take 6 on the Boyz II Men-like soulful and inspirational, “Can’t Imagine Love Without You,” a song that touched a special nerve during a joint VH1 TV appearance where Stevie insisted the group perform the song a cappella. “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and “In My Heart” possess a sweet funky, jazzy, soulful doo-wop brew backed by snapping fingers and a light percussive/bass cushion. The two aforementioned tracks could pass off as a mini mix with the similar rhythmic structure. Bass singer Alvin Chea takes his turn in the lead spot with a heartwarming performance on “Farther Along.” Shifting gears from the overall tone of One, Take 6 utilizes a complex harmonic structure based on the European classical vocal for “Alleluia.”
Even with the percussive accompaniment and a couple of instrumental tracks (including Stevie’s harmonica) on One, Take 6’s vocal skills still mesmerize the senses on every track. As long as Take 6 maintains its vocal stride, a cappella will continue to be well represented in the mainstream and jazz, gospel and pop audiences should fully appreciate this group’s continued, unique vocal artistry all the more. Highly Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver