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Well on their way
When you consider the direction that contemporary gospel music has been moving recently--draining away any grit or unpredictable emotion and substituting danceable grooves and appealing production--it's little wonder that one of the biggest gospel acts, the vocal septet Take 6, makes its headquarters in Nashville, the capital of slick.

Take 6 itself--originally Claude McKnight, Mark Kibble, Mervyn Warren, David Thomas, Cedric Davis, and Alvin Chea--could be examined as the gospel industry in a nutshell. The Grammy-winning group was all a cappella in 1988, when it released its eponymous debut. The songs were primarily new arrangements of old spirituals, with the odd original or cover thrown in, and its soaring vocals were pure church, with a slight glance at more secular styles. 1990's So Much to Say revealed a group thinking about ways to take its music--if not its message--closer to the bright lights. Although still primarily a cappella, there were rhythm parts on some songs, a full-band accompaniment (by noted new-jazz group the Yellowjackets) on one cut, and numerous pop touches like sampling and the treatment of tracks.

Warren left Take 6 in 1991 to start a production company; the group added Kibble's brother Joey and released a Christmas album as it regrouped. As befitted the seasonal nature of He is Christmas, the disc was mostly voice. In 1994, however, the group moved into band-backed R&B stylings with Join the Band, which emphasized its own material and featured contributions of pop masters such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. The message behind the music was Christian, but there was only one a cappella cut.

1996's Brothers didn't even have that nod to its gospel roots. The way the group presented its vocals changed as well: Gone was the gospel approach--a solid rope of blended voice moving through a song, with various solo voices rising up and standing for a verse or two above the stream. Now a single lead voice owned a song, supported by others in back-up mode, just as in pop R&B.

Still, like many acts built upon a kind of breathtaking, Flying Wallenda-like precision, Take 6's sonic talents are dazzling enough to earn it a certain amount of slack when it comes to style. When it wants to, the group can match its voices--from bassman Chea's low B (two octaves below middle C) to McKnight's high C (two octaves above)--so closely that it forms a single, almost organic thing. It can then unravel that cohesion one throat at a time until there are six elegant entities swooping along separate but beautifully coordinated flight lines. That kind of display is worth seeing--and hearing--regardless of format or fashion.

--Matt Weitz

Take 6 performs at the Brookhaven College Performance Hall on Friday, January 16.

 
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