Grammy-winning a capella group Take 6 takes Aspen
If You Go …
What: Take 6
Where: JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell
When: Saturday, Jan. 2 & Sunday, Jan. 3, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $45
Take 6 began as just another of the countless college a capella groups in America. But over the past three decades, the group — formed at Alabama’s Oakwood College in 1980 — has redefined vocal music. Take 6 has played the White House and on “Saturday Night Live,” performed alongside legends such as Ray Charles and Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder and won 10 Grammy Awards along the way.
Claude McKnight started the group as a quartet while he was a freshman at Oakwood. Like a typical collegiate glee club, its membership changed with each fall semester until a six-man setup took shape that was clearly something special. They drove the 120 miles to Nashville for a music industry showcase after graduation.
“We literally got our record deal the next day,” McKnight said. “There was no planning, no idea of what we would do next. Suddenly we were in the music business, and we were making records literally 20 days after getting that deal signed.”
What’s happened since is music history. Their eponymous debut, released in 1988, was a breakout hit.
“It took on a life of its own when some of the legends and luminaries in the business who enjoy what we do went and told everybody else,” McKnight said.
The vaunted a capella gospel group is coming to Aspen this weekend for a four-show, two-night run at the JAS Cafe. The shows continue a long-standing relationship with Jazz Aspen Snowmass, going back to the organization’s second annual June Festival in 1993. Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz recalled that concert as one of the more stressful in his 25 years. As sound-check time arrived at the Benedict Music Tent, Horowitz said, he got hold of the volunteer who had picked up Take 6 from the airport.
“I said, ‘They got here, are they at the tent?’ He said, ‘Well, no. They had a different plan,’” Horowitz recalled.
The sextet had headed to Aspen Mountain from the airport and gone paragliding. After jumping off the mountaintop, they rolled into the tent in time for their headlining set.
“To this day, I cannot believe the cojones of these guys,” Horowitz said.
Take 6’s interpretations of pop standards and their original gospel compositions have helped make this group of six friends the music world’s quintessential vocal group.
The band recently released the single “When Angels Cry,” an inspiring, faith-based gospel song responding to the violence and prejudice that filled the news in 2015. The song is a preview of things to come on Take 6’s forthcoming album, “Believe,” due out in March.
“We’ve always been an inspirational group, and primarily a gospel group,” McKnight said. “So we try to lift people up and give them another way with some hope and some love.”
The recent barrage of troubling news and violence — including the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting — was a call to action for Take 6, a group grounded in the belief that music can inspire change.
“What we always try to do is sit in a room and try to figure out what’s in our hearts and on our minds,” McKnight said. “This particular song came out of a lot of the things that are going on these days — church bombings and people being killed and not loving our brothers. We’re in a state of the world where, depending on what you believe, angels must really be crying.”
The complex, beguiling six-part harmonies in their songs are a musical feat, honed over decades of practice.
“We start with the song; what is the song telling you the arrangement needs to be?” McKnight said.
Based on that general idea, they may add instrumentation or steer it in a pop, R&B, or jazz direction. Take 6 member Mark Kibble quarterbacks the arranging process for the group.
“You try to paint a picture whereby the listener gets the full message of what the song is supposed to be,” McKnight said.
Take 6 has played massive festivals and venues, and earlier this year was welcomed in Cuba, becoming the first American vocal group to perform there after U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations were restored. But its six members can easily adjust to playing a boutique venue like the JAS Cafe at The Little Nell.
“We do try to scale it back a little bit, just in the sense that it’s more intimate,” McKnight said. “But the great thing about being primarily an a capella group is that we can do that on the fly. We can gauge what the energy is in the room and sing and perform accordingly.”
Though a capella groups remain a relatively small niche in the music industry, the form has enjoyed periodic spikes in popularity over the course of Take 6’s reign. New groups like Straight No Chaser and Naturally 7 (which wowed at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience last year) have gained popularity, and the phenomenon of “Glee” brought a capella into the 21st century pop mainstream.
“Now we’re the old guys in the business,” McKnight said with a laugh. “But we feel like we haven’t scratched the surface of what our creativity is. … What allows you to have a really long career is to write great songs that speak to what’s really going on in people’s lives. That’s the goal.”
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