Recording of December 1991: He Is Christmas

TAKE 6: He Is Christmas
Reprise 26665-2 (CD only). Take 6, prods.; Robert Charles, Mike McCarthy, Warren Peterson, engs. DDD. TT: 35:34

What do you say about an all-black a cappella contemporary gospel group (they call themselves "contemporary Christian a cappella pop jazz") that prominently displays a laudatory quote by Brian Wilson, of all people, whitest of white (Beach) boys, on the cover of its very first album? Well, first you listen.

To call Take 6 an a cappella gospel sextet is to almost entirely miss the point. Take 6 is to a group like the Persuasions or the Five Blind Boys as Sarah Vaughan is to Bessie Smith. That is, one is a roots group, while the other adds to the street-funk rhythmic intricacies of the basic form all the harmonic complexity of the most sophisticated music in the world—jazz—strains both through conservatory rigor, and transforms a music of street survival into a high art of astonishing discipline and freedom. What you hear is gospel, Stevie Wonder, traditional Caribbean music, spirituals, the Beach Boys, street-corner doo-wop, and scat jazz spun out with the harmonic sophistication and ear-twisting chromaticism of everyone's favorite 16th-century genius murderer, Don Carlo Gesualdo.

But most important of all is Take 6's strongly professed Christian faith. No vague, smirking smarm here about "the spirit of Christmas" or "that warm holiday feeling"; no "non-sectarian" hymns and carols, no sitcom cuteness, no "Xmas." This is music of spiritual substance—and surprising humor.

He Is Christmas is a partial return to Take 6's more straightforward 1988 debut album (Take 6), both in production style and song choice. Except for the original title track, all tunes are traditional carols, and all but "The Little Drummer Boy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" are sung strictly a cappella. In fact, Bob Mintzer & the Yellowjackets' misguided arrangement of "God Rest Ye" does little more than prove just how unnecessary such anonymously competent backing is, how uninteresting the result, how imprisoned the voices by rhythms not their own.

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" receive pretty standard vocal arrangements, but they're the only tracks that do. "Away In A Manger" and "Drummer Boy" are barely recognizable, the latter breaking midway into a full-fledged African falsetto wail. "The Night Before Christmas" is speed-scatted through in a mere 3:46, and "Silent Night" boasts as gorgeous an arrangement as I've ever heard—and I've heard hundreds (who hasn't?).

But like its two DDD predecessors, and despite the mouth-watering audiophile possibilities, the relative ease of naturally recording half a dozen unaccompanied voices, He Is Christmas is a thoroughly electronic recording. The six voices are manipulated and mixed to a fare-thee-well, electronically streamlined, beefed up, EQ'd, and aural-excited to the point that, given the group's penchant for straight-tone (vibratoless) singing, often the singers are indistinguishable from synclaviered samples, or even synth tones—especially the lower voices, which sound like a Farfisa (footnote 1). Hard-core audiophiles need not apply.

But for everyone else, He Is Christmas is a Christmas album for people who never buy Christmas albums. There were times on this disc when I literally could not believe my ears, the vocal arrangements were so fresh, so dense and light at once, so mind-frenchingly wild, the singers' intonation so relentlessly perfect. And if you want similar treatments of more traditional gospel tunes, or of Take 6's even more impressive originals, get Take 6 or So Much 2 Say, respectively. I wouldn't be without any of 'em. Merry Christmas.—Richard Lehnert

Footnote 1: For a taste of a raw take 1 of Take 6, pick up the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Do It Acapella! TV special.