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Duke University's Page Auditorium became the aesthetic and religious "companion" to Duke Chapel when the Grammy Award-winning a cappella sextet Take 6 performed in concert on January 14 (concurrent with the University's celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Self-described as the "hardest working – and oldest – working boy band in show business," Alvin Chea, David Thomas, Claude V. McKnight III, Mark Kibble, Joel ("Joey") Kibble, and Dr. Cedric Dent performed to a near-capacity audience, opening the program with songs from their next CD, Sure Feels Good, which is scheduled for release in March.
While the largest share of concert reviews done here are of classical music, it should be said that Take 6's "proximity" to the classically-rooted "King Singers/Chanticleer a cappella sound" and even the early hip-hop sound of Boyz 2 Men and the doowop of Sha Na Na are at the core of this writer's listening imagination when hearing them. However, there are three distinctly audible differences that set Take 6 apart from those or any other a cappella group at present. The first is their phenomenal ability to sing, chant, and even stomp out a song in several stylistic guises, one right on the heels of another. The second and most important difference is that the beauty of their sound has been refined over two decades of performing and recording together (with only one personnel change in that span of time). The third and most important is the strong influence of their Christian faith at work in their lives and their music.
Take 6's repertoire spans so many styles and genres of vocal ensemble music that mere mention of even two or three styles would fall woefully short of a lucid description of their music. After the opening selections ("I've Got the Victory" and "Sure Feels Good"), these six not-so-twentysomething-anymore gentlemen quickly had the audience whipped up into the fervor of a revival meeting. Take 6 then led the audience (who got to sing along like we should vote around here, "early and often") in a bluesy melody that wove itself into their next song, the famous spiritual "Wade in the Water." The audience soon began singing a virtual cantus firmus for this spiritual – a most inventive and appealing sound and experience. The term implies a medieval or Renaissance-period style of music – settings of Masses and motets on a familiar sacred or secular melody as the cantus firmus, not usually the Negro spiritual or blues – yet this combination worked as effectively as the centuries-old exemplars.
The second "phase" of the program was introduced as the "Take 6 Jazz Club Vibe," featuring three songs borrowed from the jazz repertoire: "All Blues" (by Miles Davis), "My Friend," which Take 6 recorded with the late great Ray Charles, and "Smile" – Charlie Chaplin's poignant ballad. "All Blues" paid homage to the instrumentalists of the now classic 1959 recording Kind of Blue (Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb) and a few other instrumentalists for good measure. Each member took a featured solo, doing reasonable justice to all instruments imitated. Joey Kibble's Harmon-muted-trumpet-voice needed a touch more "buzz" in order to parallel Miles' signature sound, and kid brother Mark Kibble's clarinet recalled Pee Wee Russell – who, to my knowledge never played with Miles, but why split hairs when they're singing anyway?
Alvin Chea, the vocal "anchor" of the group, sang and all but spoke the bass line, while David Thomas sang a guitar solo that began as Wes Montgomery and morphed into Jimi Hendrix in one chorus, and Claude V. McKnight III sang a trombone solo at which Dicky Wells or Vic Dickenson (of Count Basie Orchestra renown) would've smiled with approval. Cedric Dent, who serves the group as chief arranger, played piano – actually, not virtually – recalling Bill Evans in an instant of musically exquisite sound from the nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano that visually dominated the stage – along with two acoustic guitars and a few boom microphone stands. (Upon arrival, I was actually disarmed to see instruments onstage!)
Joey Kibble sang the featured lead voice for "My Friend," which Ray Charles recorded with Take 6 in 1995 (all collaborated again on his final recording in 2005), blending between his own clarion tenor and Ray's once-earthy baritone. "Smile" remains a lovely ballad that is all but impossible to "un-do" – Charlie would've agreed as well. Without a break, the men eased into what must be the most moving extant rendition of "Lamb of God," which has quickly become one of the best-loved "contemporary" hymns of the late 20th century. Dr. Dent's arrangement contains heart-rending chromatic text-painting in the verses followed by a six-voiced "wall of sound" in the chorus: "O Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God...." My thoughts went back to the opening chorus of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, where the same "O Lammes Gott" is described in similar expressive terms impossible to withstand without being profoundly moved (even to tears). Once the ecstasy had subsided, the concert hall could no longer be dwelled within as such – it had become a place of worship, even though the "congregation" knew that it still had to function in a reserved and receptive auditory manner, and not in the wholly charismatic manner of open participation, in which the visitation of the Holy Ghost is uninhibited.
One could have continued meditating on the Lamb of God – and some would perhaps have preferred to do so – but the 'fellas eased out of that state of ecstasy into the perennial jazz favorite "Just In Time." Now such a segue (or the lack thereof) might have been come off as either clumsy or in the worst of taste in the hands of other performers, but with the oldest whippersnappers of a cappella, it was no difficult transition whatsoever. I mentioned earlier that they have the uncanny ability to move from one style to another with ease and precision; in other circumstances, their moves might sound almost capricious, but because they are so well-timed and placed, the listener who is still running to catch up with what has just been heard perceives the results as natural and indeed inevitable. (It might help to think of the stand-up comedy of Robin Williams as a possible analogy here).
While the remainder of the program was of the utmost musical invention and expression, it became one of two potential experiences, depending on three more factors: a) matters of audience stamina; b), familiarity with the Take 6 repertoire up to the present day; and c) one's willingness to hear more of the same manner of music-making. One outcome was a great concert just moving right along as it was – or a concert that ran too long. Any – and I do mean any – performer having a particular sound as the main means of audience attraction (in popular songs, the term "hook" is used to describe such a means) has to be ever so careful about matters of program length and audience fatigue, and the issue of appealing, sensitive programming is always a very difficult matter to address effectively with each performance, for each audience, and at every time.
Take 6 is a very strong group vocally, and they sang for nearly two hours without intermission, onstage dancing and audience interaction notwithstanding. Those members of the audience who had heard all about Take 6 and just wanted to see if they "still had it" after 20 years together got what they came for, up to "Lamb of God" – that much might have been more than enough to convince them to renew their memberships in the fan club. The folks who liked the Take 6 of that very first album (so much that they could sing all parts of that recording in their sleep) weren't disappointed either, but that constituency was treated to so much "new" material that it became hard to keep up – not that the sound of the group was so new, but many of the songs were – over ten albums' worth!
The remainder of the program featured songs from their previous albums – "Fly Away" immediately recalled Ladysmith Black Mambazo (without Paul Simon!) and old prison worksongs of the Deep South; "We Don't Have To Cry" (from "Brothers," a collaboration with Brian McKnight) was a lovely ballad that featured Claude McKnight, with David Thomas and Joey Kibble playing those guitars whose presence onstage puzzled me earlier. If Take 6 has a gospel and a jazz edge, then its blues edge came forth in "Grandma's Hands," Bill Withers' song of 1970s fame. The gents gave the song a sultry Delta blues mannerism with guitars in hand (Sweet Honey in the Rock and Son House would've been quite at home with this treatment), with a "preachin' interval" done in the Black Baptist preaching style by Joey, who related an alternative "down home" story about "Grandma's Hands" – one where a child is slapped for being insolent while Grandma is baking an apple pie in her kitchen – one hand for the pie and the same hand to deal with the child – while the pie was in midair! The evening wrapped up – reluctantly – with an extensive medley of familiar "hits" – "So Much 2 Say" is an up-tempo jazzy tune whose subject comes from a Hindu lesson often quoted by the former president of Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mayes ("I only have a minute, only sixty seconds in it..."). The up-tempo lesson featured Alvin Chea in "solo slap bass voice/instrument," and the brothers Kibble engaged in dueling melismas toward the song's end, with much sibling rivalry antics displayed to the delight of the delirious and probably quite fatigued audience that wouldn't go home – just yet. "I've Got Life in Jesus" was another astonishing blend of style changes within a song made as if stopping and turning on a dime, from up-tempo gospel-jazz to downshifted, below-tempo hip-hop.
"Spread Love" – the first song of their first album – was the closer and the encore, with the audience leading with the cantus firmus – words by Hal David and Burt Bacharach ("What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love"), but with a melody provided by Take 6. Such song resounding from the stage, main level, and balcony surely sent the message that needs to resound all around the planet, in good timing with the Duke University Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. When preparing to hear the concert and then write about it, I was reminded of the reminiscent observation of James Weldon Johnson, the "Renaissance man of the Harlem Renaissance," who wrote in the preface to his monumental collection, The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925): "Pick up four colored boys or young men anywhere and the chances are ninety out of a hundred that you have a quartet. Let one of them sing the melody and the others will naturally find the parts...; every barber shop had its quartet, and the men spent their leisure time playing on the guitar – not banjo, mind you – and 'harmonizing.'" I have witnessed some of these explorations in the field of harmony – and the scenes of hilarity and back-slapping when a new and peculiarly rich chord is discovered. There would be demands for repetitions and cries of "Hold it! Hold it!" until it was firmly mastered.
James Weldon Johnson would have rejoiced at hearing Take 6 live at Duke, but his expectations of mere four-part dulcet harmony would have been shattered by the six-part harmony, vocal rhythm, and percussion. Then again, the creator of the Negro national anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" and the poem "O Black and Unknown Bards" couldn't have found enough surprising and intriguing things about the sight and sound of the African-American "song" or the "bard." Bless him for his poetic foresight – and bless Take 6 for their gifts of musical insight bestowed upon those who gathered "next to the Chapel." Special commendations should also go to the Duke Divinity School Praise Team, members of the Black Seminarians Union, who opened the concert and also served as gracious offstage hosts for the artists.
*We are pleased to introduce Timothy W. Holley to these pages as a critic. Readers will surely know his name and his artistry from his many area performances as NCCU's (and Mallarmé's) cellist.