Has the heavenly a cappella sextet fully embraced the devil’s music? Not quite, but they’re getting close. Four years ago, with the release of Beautiful World, the Alabama lads ventured deep into pop territory, laying down radiant covers of Sting’s “Fragile,” Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and Michael McDonald’s “Takin’ It to the Streets” alongside “Peace in the Valley” and “People Get Ready.” Then, with 2006’s Feels Good, they opted for an almost full retreat to their gospel roots. Now, with a change of label, they’re venturing further than ever into secular territory, bringing a remarkable coterie of jazz and R&B heavyweights along for the ride.
Explaining the decision to craft a playlist that leans heavily toward jazz standards, veteran member David Thomas notes, “We sing lyrics that always exemplify our spiritual and moral convictions, [but] what we really are is a jazz vocal group.” Oddly, the group opens with an arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown” hugely derivative of the whistling Brother Bones version that has long served as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme. It and a corny “Bein’ Green” (nearly, but not quite, rescued by a clever nod to Barack Obama) are the album’s only weak tracks. A bouncy “Straighten Up and Fly Right” is enhanced by George Benson on lead vocals and guitar, Roy Hargrove and vocalist Shelea Frazier enrich a velvety “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Aaron Neville further sweetens a butterscotch-smooth “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” even Ella Fitzgerald gets in on the act, with a sampling of her landmark recording brightening the guys’ reading of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
And those tight Take 6 harmonies prove ideal for exploring the dark, labyrinthine twists and turns of “Windmills of Your Mind.” But the piece de resistance is a tour de force treatment of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” with vocalese masters Jon Hendricks (who contributed the dazzling lyrics) and Al Jarreau (at his breakneck best) joining Mark Kibble on lead vocals, and a stunning flugelhorn solo added by Till Brönner.