Those of us who were dealing with music back in 1988 remember vividly the arrival of Take 6. In amidst of an increasingly producer-driven industry, the six-member Nashville-based team’s self-titled debut album was like more than a breath of fresh air: it was a virtual musical tornado that woke us up and reminded many of us of the sheer beauty of the instrument known as the human voice. Specifically focused on traditional spirituals (like “Mary Don’t You Weep”) and original material (such as “Gold Mine”), that first record quickly became a critical favorite and amazingly rose through all the dreck and dross of the day to sell over a million copies and win the group their first set of Grammy Awards.
Since then, over some nine albums (including a Greatest Hits collection and a 2000 Live album), Take 6 have traversed different musical terrain, veering away from the strictly accapella approach of that first groundbreaking CD. The results have been mixed and while I can admit to enjoying some of the group’s work since the inspiration I experienced with their first album, I have to say that Take 6’s latest album has been a real reminder of just how good they are. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that “Beautiful World” contains some tunes that I personally love such as The Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It To The Streets,” Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Sting’s “Fragile” and Donald Fagen’s “Beautiful World” and the gospel classic “Wade In The Water.” Producer Marcus Miller did a fine job in not overpowering the group’s fine vocal harmonies with too much instrumentation and the result is that “Beautiful World” is probably my favorite Take 6 album…
Original member Cedric Dent is happy to explain how the album evolved. “For some time, we were talking about doing an album of jazz standards but because we’re consider what we do is a ministry, we were looking at songs like “God Bless The Child” and “Nature Boy.” Once we hooked up with Marcus Miller and talked to our A&R guy at Warner Brothers, Matt Pearson, we began opening up to include more recent classic songs…”
In order to come up with what would ultimately comprise the album, the group members made their own individual lists of songs: “We began to compare lists and there were two or three like Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love” and Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” which were on everyone lists,” says Cedric. “We cut six or seven songs and the album started to have a real direction now…” Constantly looking for songs to complete the project, a Donny Hathaway song was under consideration: enter Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the legendary artist, and friend of producer Miller’s. “It was Lalah who suggested we do “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and it was a song she had never recorded before so we asked her to sing on the session. It was truly an honor to have her there…”
The spirituals “Wade In The Water” (basically accapella with the addition of a horn section and sax solo from Kirk Whalum) and “Peace In The Valley” (a completely accapella piece) were what Cedric terms “a throwback to our roots, both from repertoire that is familiar to us. A the album progressed, we realized it was quite different from what we normally do and at som point, we were all on the same page. We were finishing off the album about three months before September 11 and after that, Stevie Wonder called and asked us to sing on the “Tribute To Heroes” show. We sang “Love’s In Need” and three other songs from the album at the concert. It seemed as if providence was telling us that the material we were doing for the record would be songs that helped pull everyone together at that time…”
The final choice for the album was Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (ironically, a song that Jody Watley also included on her “Midnight Lounge” album). Cedric says that the song was suggested by A&R man Pearson “and most of us went ‘uh, we don’t feel it.’ But Matt was real persistent and Marcus called me and told me not to give up on the song. He said we should listen to it again and see if anything struck me. I listened to it two or three times and then we thought about treating like an anthem, you know, something that could start off small and grow into something big like “Man In the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.”
Once completed, Cedric says the group did not think about its commercial appeal. “We were not thinking about whether it would reach a mainstream audience. Take 6 never been a radio airplay kind of group. We’re uniquely different and I think we tend to get into trouble if try to chase radio airplay. For us, it’s about doing the best project we can do. In retrospect, the album is more accessible because of the choice of songs…”
Highlights of the recording process including “getting a chance to meet Bill Withers who’s also a friend of Marcus’ too. The amazing thing with Marcus is that played on some of the original recordings like “Beautiful World” with Donald Fagen, who heard our version and thought it was really great. He appreciated us updating the sound of the song. And of course, Stevie (Wonder) loved the project too!”
Turns out that Stevie isn’t the only one since “Beautiful World” has been well-received, getting some rave reviews from music journalists who seem excited about Take 6’s song choices and exceptional vocalizing on the album. In these days and times when traditional black music has all died among conglomerate-owned record companies, it’s pretty amazing that “Beautiful World” can gain release by a label like Warner Brothers, let alone the fact that Take 6 still has a recording contract with a major company. “There’s a very simple answer,” says Cedric. “We’ve always had fans working at the record company. There have always been a few people at the label who are die-hard fans including Jim Edd Norman, the guy at the Nashville office who signed us in the first place. We’ve still got people in our corner but if and when we leave, we would start our own label and do our own record since we are established now and today’s technology really allows artists to do that…”
While Take 6 “is not the favorite group of die-hard accapella fans anymore, our sound is identifiable whether or not we use instruments;” Cedric says and the group keeps busy with work in Japan (“still one of our most popular markets and a country we visit once a year”) and Europe where they have done major jazz festivals like Montreux at different times during the past few years, performing an average of sixty or seventy dates per year. Recent gigs have included stints at intimate venues like The Blue Note in New York and Las Vegas. Cedric says the group loves doing such clubs because “we’re able to reach out and touch people, especially when we do a slow choral arrangement. Those places are perfect for that…” Harmony and vocal excellence remain the hallmarks of the group’s work and there’s no doubt that “Beautiful World” is a fine reminder of just how good they sound!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.