Monday, March 27, 2006

Gospel Gal Interview: Jazzed about Take 6

Jazzed About Take 6
by LaTonya Taylor

A verbal interlude on an early Take 6 album says that "all the sounds on this next song, including the drums, are created using the human voice or some other part of the anatomy." The reason for the playful explanation is clear: A capella is the easiest way to describe the blend of tight harmonies, multilayered aural surprises and stylistic eclecticism that characterizes a group that Quincy Jones calls "the baddest vocal cats on the planet." Take 6's genre-busting blend of spirituals, doo-wop, R&B, gospel and vocal jazz have earned plenty of accolades—including 10 Grammys!—since their 1988 self-titled debut. All solid Christians, the six members have earned respect all around, from Christian and mainstream audiences and collaborators. In this interview, first tenor Mark Kibble looks back at his very first experience with the group, talks about their new album, and discusses what success looks like after two decades together.

The story of how you joined the group is pretty cool. Would you mind sharing it?

Mark Kibble: Claude McKnight was a freshman at Oakwood College, and he'd started a group. They were in a campus bathroom, rehearsing for a concert that night, and I happened to be passing by and heard them singing. I recognized Claude's voice, because we grew up together. So I went in to listen, and, since I knew the song, added a fifth part. They liked it so much, they said, "OK, you've got to sing with us tonight." We went right up from that bathroom and performed. The beginning of Take 6 was born.

What song were they singing?

Kibble: A song we still sing: "If we ever needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now."

You were pretty young.

Kibble: I was still in high school, 16 or 17. My high school was near Oakwood College, so students attended a lot of the same events. That made it easy for us to rehearse and perform. From there it grew, but it was a long time growing. We got immediate recognition around the college. People loved to hear us sing, but the faculty of the college did not.


Kibble: We were just a little too different from what they expected, and were perceived as a threat, so much so that they tried to shut us down.

Really? What do you mean?

The faculty members were very reluctant to have us sing for college events, and we would just show up and sing and get a huge response. Then, they made a rule that if you sang in a college-sponsored group or choir, you couldn't be in any other groups of more than four people. Of course, we were more than four. But that didn't even matter to me. It mattered more that I stick to this particular thing that we had, because it was so good.

Do you think the objection was really about the number of people in the group, or about your style?

I think part of the reason was that if you were in another group, you might run into scheduling conflicts when it came to rehearsals or performances with college-sponsored groups. But, yes, I think it really was about the style.


Oakwood is a Christian school, and historically, there's always been a resistance toward anything jazzy. We were very jazzy. And even though we were not using jazz instruments, we sounded like we were. That was enough. Change is always hard, especially in environments like that. And they just didn't know what to make of us. So, they tried to keep the reins tight.

There's a history of Christians being resistant to jazz music.

Ever since the early 19th century, you were either singing in church, or you were singing in the jazz clubs. But depending on what you're singing about, a lot of jazz and gospel stylings are almost identical, especially with early gospel music. What's accepted as traditional gospel music today met resistance at first, because the style was so close to what people heard in jazz clubs. We experienced that generational resistance at first.

Let's talk about Feels Good, your new CD. It seems that Take 6's albums tend to alternate between a capella style, then one that branches out stylistically. Is that an accurate perception?

It's fairly accurate, yes. I think every album for us is a new type of experiment, but we do realize who we are. A capella's our base, so we figured we always come back to that at some point.

Take 6 has always drawn from a lot of sources. On Feels Good, those sources are as diverse as the jazz standard "Just in Time," then Twila Paris' "Lamb of God." What do you listen to that gives you that sense of diversity?

There's a large, diverse pool of songs, writers and musicians that I listen to. I appreciate so many different kinds of music, and bringing them all together and converting them into what we do is the biggest task. For this album, I was the point person, so I got to decide everything (laughing). There were a lot of good songs, and it came down to songs that felt like their time had come, flavors needed to fill the whole pie.

When Cedric [Dent] and I were arranging "Just in Time," we thought, Isn't it crazy that this jazz standard, to us, describes the way Christ came into our lives and became everything? So we didn't change any lyrics; it just fit for us. When Cedric heard Twila Paris' "Lamb of God," he was so inspired by it, the Spirit just came on him and he did the arrangement for it. When I first heard it, I said, "We have to put that on the album." It was just that powerful. In concert, we do those songs back to back.

Feels Good is the first album on Take 6 Records. How did you decide to form a record label?

First of all, praise God for it! We've been with Warner Brothers our entire career, and toward the latter three quarters of that time, we experienced such a lack of interest. They would allow us to do CDs, but just kind of drop 'em after we did 'em.

We also realized that record companies may put up a lot of money to produce the CDs, but they also get all the returns. So, it made sense for us to use our finances and our abilities to just do it! And to let God bless it and bless us in the meantime (laughs hard)!

You're putting up your own money? I'm sure you're hoping that (laughing)!

I'm not even hoping that. I'm believing!

What challenges has entrepreneurship presented?

It's a lot of work. Before, with Warner, we'd make an album, and turn it over to the "machine." Now we have to put our own machinery in place. That took a little work, and it still taking a bit of work. But with God's help, it's going to happen.

Take 6 has won 10 Grammys and is the most-nominated group in Grammy history. Now you have your own label. How do the six of you define success after this?

It's all relative (big laugh). I can't say that we're not successful. We've been honored so many times. We've been doing this thing for so long, and we're still doing it. That says a lot. We've sold many, many albums over our entire career. That speaks for success.

It would be great to enjoy another wave of huge, visible success. Some people measure success in financial terms. We've struggled over the last 10 years financially. It's been difficult for us to hang together and do things, but God has maintained us. None of us is starving or hurting deeply financially. We're OK. That, to us, is success.

Looking forward, if we can sign artists and have them see some visible success, that'd be wonderful. But whatever God decides for us is going to be fine. If he decides, "You're gonna have this much, and no more, because you can't handle any more," or "I'm just not ready for you to be there," that's OK. Just as long as we're within what God wants us to do, we're gonna be fine.

Why is it possible to be so successful artistically, and still struggle financially?

It goes back to that record company thing. When an artist or group is charting and selling out concerts, it doesn't necessarily mean that the money is coming back to them. It means that the investors who make the deals are getting money.

That happened to us. We were highly, highly successful in the early '90s—and hardly saw a penny of it. I know pop groups that scream that same thing. And while they may have mansions and drive great cars, considering how much money they actually made for a record company, they hardly have anything.

That's why we decided to go ahead and form our own record company. So that all that money that goes out there, when people buy the CDs, we'll actually get the larger percentage of what comes back, rather than building another Warner Brothers building. It just depends on how you have your money managed.

You had a friendship with Ray Charles. What are your memories of him?

Well, of course, we did a song with him on our Join the Band album. And we were almost on his very last CD.

Genius and Friends?

Kibble: We'd actually done the title cut for it. But by the time we finished it, he was already too ill to perform it. But my memories with him are so great, because I actually got to spend time with him in his studio, bringing him the material. He didn't allow me to watch him to record; he just said, "You just give me the music, and I'ma do my thing, and I'll send it back to you." I gave it to him, let him listen to it, watched him go around his whole studio, knowing where every button was, threading the tape machine, the whole nine. He had a great appreciation for what we do, and for me, so our friendship was great. I had many conversations with him, and it was just a wonderful experience.

We talked earlier about how Oakwood College was less than supportive at the beginning of Take 6. Are you highly valued alumni now?

(laughing hard) Twenty years later, yeeeeah!


They've had us back to do shows, and they've honored us. But it took 10 years before they even considered it (laughs)! But you know, at least we're still alive!

How does a group stay together for so long and keep things so fresh?

Kibble: Our mission and our love for Christ bind us together. We know that God brought us together in the first place. There's no way that we could have done it. We came from different parts of the country, and he handpicked us. Even when one of us left, God brought in my brother Joey, who's become our spiritual leader. We're all brothers.

Even now that Cedric is teaching [at Middle Tennessee State University] and can't always go out on the road with us, we've found another brother who fills in when he cannot make it—Khristian Dentley, a young, super-talented guy. He's got the same mindset and the same spirit, and we're so happy God brought him to the table. When God does stuff like that, you know you're not supposed to stop. God is not through with what we have to do, so our mission is sure, and we're going to continue until God says to do something else.

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