A Conversation with Take 6 Founder: Claude McKnight

The Gateways Festival Orchestra’s performance at Orchestra Hall on April 19 will conclude a week of concerts and events around Chicago celebrating the African-American classical experience. But it will also merge with another tradition when the orchestra combines with Take 6, the best-selling a cappella gospel group.

Take 6 founder Claude McKnight recently spoke with Experience CSO writer David Lewellen by phone. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Listening to close harmony is amazing. How do you learn to sing that?

It’s training your ear to hear those harmonies with a good working knowledge of keyboards and intervals. It’s important to listen to all kinds of music and hear all kinds of chord progressions, so that your ear recognizes it even if you can’t name it.

You have a sextet – do you usually have chords with six different notes, or are some guys doubling?

Most of the time, it’s six dedicated parts on different notes. It depends on how much tension and release you want. In spots, you can give the listener a rest and pare it down; it depends what the song is asking for.

Who does your original songwriting, or your arrangements for covers?

All of us are songwriters. If there’s something we want to say, sometimes we can write a song that says it, and sometimes there’s a song already written that says it. We’re all arrangers, too, but Mark Kibble does most of them. He’s a genius at the sound of Take 6. He has a special knack for identifying what the sound should be.

When you’ve got such tight chords, is there much room for improvisation or scatting?

Not much. Sometimes there’s one section in the song where I can do something different as first tenor. But all six parts of the chord have to be covered.

What are some of the through lines in popular music history that lead to you?

Earth, Wind and Fire. Manhattan Transfer. The Mills Brothers. The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. The doowop tradition, standing on the stoop and finding three other guys to sing with. And we all play instruments, too.

Do your shows usually have much instrumental backing?

It depends. The vocals are the focal point of what happens, but some songs get their point across better with other instruments.

So then how different is it to be singing with a 60-piece orchestra behind you?

It’s a delicate balance. If people come to hear Take 6, they want it to be vocal-heavy, but we have to figure out what to do with the orchestra. It should be hand in glove with each other, not two gloves and two hands.

Tell me more about your normal symphony orchestra shows.

We’re really blessed to be able to do a lot of different kinds of gigs. One thing we have to be aware of with orchestras is that with union rules, rehearsals really have to start and end on time. There’s a lot of moving parts. But we have lots of arrangements for symphony orchestras that Cedric and Mark have done. Whatever the song’s supposed to do, with melody, rhythm, chords, the six of us plus 60 more. Our next album is going to be all jazz, and we’re preparing some orchestral arrangements to go with those pieces.

And how is the Gateway Festival Orchestra show going to be different?

It’s a really cool thought, to combine an African-American orchestra and an African-American singing group. We sent them a list of songs that we thought would be appropriate, and we’ll do five or six with the orchestra, plus two or three a cappella. We like doing symphony shows anyway, but this one will be a different feel.