In conversation with cedric dent of take 6
By Tomas PeŮa
Who would have thought that by focusing on the narrow, seemingly out-of-vogue a cappella singing style, a group like Take 6 would someday emerge and break down the barriers between jazz, gospel, and soul? In so doing, the group has become one of the most popular and in-demand vocal groups in the world. Thus far, the group has garnered 10 Grammy awards, one Soul Train award, and two NAACP Image Award nominations. Moreover, theyíve collaborated with Whitney Houston, Don Henley, Ray Charles, Queen Latifah, Joe Sample, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Roy Hargrove, Jon Hendricks, Quincy Jones, Marcus Miller, Brian McKnight and others. Thanks to the efforts of Mike Wilpizeski, Vice President of Jazz Publicity at Telarc/Heads Up International, I was able to catch up with baritone Cedric Dent, who travels and performs with Take 6 when heís not teaching at Middle Tennessee State University.
Congratulations on the release of The Standard, Take 6ís Ďjazziestí recording to date.
We made a concerted effort to do some covers of jazz and a few R & B things that we loved down through the years. Also, it was something that the record label was interested in doing.
I understand the group is currently on tour in Europe. You remained behind because of a teaching commitment.
Yeah, I am a full time professor now at Middle Tennessee State University, which is right outside of Nashville.
So you join the group when you are not teaching?
During the fall and spring semesters I have a guy who Ďsubsí for me. During the summer months, Iím with the group full-time.
You are one busy guy!
Trying to juggle both of these things is quite a balancing act!
Letís introduce the members of the group and describe the role each of them plays.
Claude McKnight is on top most of the time, we call him one of the first tenors. Mark Kibble is directly under him; heís another first tenor.
Mark is also the primary arranger, correct?
Yes, Mark is our primary arranger, somebody I am still learning from after twenty years. Then thereís David Thomas. I call him sort of a first/second tenor; heís the third man down from the top. Then thereís Joel Kibble, whoís a second tenor. I am a baritone under him, and then thereís our bass, Alvin Chea.
The group started out as a quartet twenty-eight years ago (1980) at Oakland College in Huntsville, Alabama. The original name was Alliance, which then became the Gentlemenís Quartet.
Actually, itís the other way around. The original name was the Gentlemenís Quartet and the name was changed to Alliance.
As I understand it, the group used to rehearse in the menís room at Oakland College because of the acoustics.
In fact, they would find various places around campus where the acoustics were very reverberant, and practice. There was a particular public bathroom in the basement underneath one of the auditoriums where student performances happened all the time Ö they were warming up in the bathroom, waiting for their turn to go on to stage to perform. This is part of the famous story where Mark Kibble came in and joined them before they were about to perform.
He overheard the group rehearsing?
Itís not like that was place where they always rehearsed. It was right before a performance, and it was conveniently located beneath the auditorium where they were about to perform one evening.
Mark eventually became a member of the group and the primary arranger. He was responsible for bringing Mervyn Warren into the fold.
Right, you know the story better than me!
Thank you, and thank God for YouTube, itís a great resource. Your music is firmly rooted in the Gospel tradition, but it also contains elements of Jazz and R & B. Over the years the group has come under some criticism from the religious community for not adhering to strict, conservative standards. How do you reconcile the religious side of things with the groupís commercial appeal?
After doing this for awhile, we finally came to the conclusion that we really have to do what we are passionate about and what we feel spiritually led to do, and then just let the chips fall where they may. For years, when we would be in gospel music settings we would be looked at as outsiders. Then we would be in jazz and other secular settings, and we would be looked at as outsiders there! So we decided to do the best we can, to be excellent at what we do. And that simplified things for us, because then we were not trying to chase a genre, or a style, or a mode that someone else wanted us to be. An older musician once told me, ĎWhen you try to do what other people want you to do, thatís a moving target.í
If you had done what other people wanted you to do, you probably wouldnít be as popular as you are today. You are spreading Ďthe gospelí all over the world. The groupís tour schedule is astounding!
Yeah, we are all over the map, arenít we?
How does Take 6ís music go over internationally? Do people Ďgetí your message?
Our audiences all over the world are enthusiastic, although I would say that there are some cultural differences in the way they express that enthusiasm. American audiences are really good at talking back to you during a performance. Japanese audiences are a lot more courteous during the performance, but they get real exuberant at the end. Jazz audiences tend to fall in between those two categories. If you are new to international travel, it might throw you a little bit, because the responses are culturally different. But once you understand that, you can appreciate their enthusiasm in the way that they express it.
What about getting your message across to people who do not speak the language?
We were with Warner Brothers for many years, and they did a great thing with helping us develop an audience in Japan, in particular. Every CD that we did here was released there, with an extra insert that had all the lyrics of our songs translated to Japanese. So when we performed there, they knew what the songs meant, and that was helpful for us. In Europe, people are multilingual and they understand the words. That was a really good thing for us, because it helped us develop a rapport with a Japanese audience. For a long time, Japan was our largest market outside of the U.S. And in some ways it still is.
To the best of your knowledge, does Japan have an a cappella tradition?
They have a few, but I donít know that itís widespread. But again, because of the marketing efforts early on, we began touring there every year. There has not been a year in the last fifteen years that we have not performed in Japan. We even have some commercial endorsements there [that aren't seen in the U.S.].
I donít know if you are aware of it or not, but you have quite a fan base in Cuba.
I didnít know that.
Thereís a female vocal group in Cuba called Sexto Sentido (Sixth Sense) who draw their inspiration from your music. Furthermore, Cuba has a strong vocal tradition that goes way back.
Wow, that is flattering!
The group is not copying your style per se, but stylistically, you can hear the influence of Take 6.
I did know that we have a strong audience in South America, because we've toured there quite a bit. Countries like Argentina and Brazil have always been very supportive, but I didnít know about Cuba.
Letís talk about The Standard. This is your eleventh album, correct?
I think this is our 13th album Ö I am not sure.
The repertoire runs the gamut from Ella Fitzgeraldís ĎA Tisket a Tasket,í to Miles Davisís ĎSeven Steps to Heaven.í Perhaps the oddest and most fun tune is ĎBeing Green.í I particularly like the quip at the end, which speaks about the possibility of a ĎPresident of color!í
We didnít know what was going to happen when we did that recording, we just found it interesting that Ö to be honest with you, I never thought I would see a person of color become President in my lifetime. I certainly thought it was on the horizon but I didnít think it would happen this soon.
Neither did I! Getting back to the music, how did you choose the repertoire? Is it a democratic process?
We just started compiling a list of songs; we had a master list, and we would just all sort of throw songs onto the list. We had friends who made suggestions of songs, and then every once in awhile we would all go, ďOoh, this is a really great one, we really should do this one.Ē And then, Mark Kibble, the primary arranger, started digging into them. He is also the producer for the record, so he made the final pick from the list that we all put together. We thought he did a great job.
What about the guests, like Aaron Neville, Al Jarreau, Roy Hargrove, Jon Hendricks, and others?
These were all people that we had worked with before in various capacities. [We] decided, since we have done things with and for them, maybe itís time to call in some favors (laughs). I teach a seminar on the music industry, and one of the things I say to my students all the time in this class is very apropos to how we got these guest artists on our record. I tell them, 'You have heard it said that itís not what you know but who you know. Well, thatís not really true. Itís actually what you know and who you know!'
My point is that networking is a really big part of any field that you go into. You really have to develop strong relationships that will help you. And the relationships should be reciprocal, so you can help them as well. Thatís really how most of these collaborations came about. These were all people that weíve known through the years with whom we've performed and recorded before.
Speaking of special guests, I canít get over how much George Benson sounds like Nat King Cole on the tune, ĎStraighten Up and Fly Right.í Was he purposely imitating Nat King Cole? Itís uncanny!
Yeah! Well, we found that he at one point had been doing a tribute to Nat King Cole, so that turned out to be very fortuitous for us, to have him come in and sing a Nat King Cole tune. He does a great job of channeling Nat.
Thanks to the marvels of technology, you even managed to include Ella Fitzgerald. Who came up with that idea?
I canít remember who exactly came up with it, but it was a unanimous decision to do it. Ella is one of the greatest singers ever. The things that she did live in terms of accuracy and intonationópeople [today] use all kinds of recording techniques and gadgetry to try to sound that much in-tune, and still donít do it as well. She is just one of the best in any genre at what she did. So it was one of those things where we just had to do something with Ella. Timing wise, we didnít get a chance to do it while she was alive, so this was our way paying tribute to her, and still sort of getting a chance to perform with her vicariously.
Is there a male vocalist who meets those standards?
One of my favorites is Bobby McFerrin. I donít know if you have ever seen him live, but what he does is just mind boggling.
Yes, I have seen him and I agree, though itís been awhile since he has released a recording.
And he has such depth of in terms of what he can do, stylistically. You can hear his understanding of the classical music genre as well as jazz. He does both with equal aplomb. Again, he is just an inspiration.
Bobbyís a renaissance man. The last I heard he was conducting a classical orchestra. What is he doing now?
I havenít heard recently what he is doing. We run into him all the time in Europe, doing performances. I know that he is still touring but from what I understand he does a lot conducting for symphony orchestras. He is still very active.
I donít think I have ever heard a vocal group that is as technically proficient as Take 6. Part of it obviously has to do with the giftóthe voices that God has given youóbut how do you rise to that level? You guys have taken the vocal tradition to an entirely new level, and raised the bar so high.
Well, I have to say it doesnít come without some sacrifice. By that I mean, most artists would probably have twice as many recordings as we do. In other words, it takes us quite awhile to really put together the work that we do, much to the chagrin of the record labels, who are always telling us to have a new record out every nine months.
You know whatís on their minds!
Of course! The other thing, too, is we are self-produced. When we are touring nothing is happening in the studio. Itís not like a pop artist who has a producer who is collecting songs and putting tracks together while the artist is out touring and when they come back they can just go right into the studio and start recording. Itís a very methodical, systematic approach that we take to what we do. So thatís part of it, right there.
In a past interview Mark Kibble said that it takes about a year for the group to put an album together.
I tell people all the time, Take 6 is Take 6 because we are strong in three areas. First is the arranging. We have arrangements on a level that most groups have a hard time grasping. Number two, we have very strong lead singers. The guys in our group do things outside of Take 6. They are constantly called because they are great lead singers. Number three, the collective range of the group has always been our strength. Our bass singer is one of the lowest bass singers that you will hear, and heís getting lower as he gets older. He does things that still boggle my mind, because his voice is still dropping. But we also have had really good first tenors too. So those three things combined I think really make Take 6 quite unique.
I remember when Boyz II Men came out, and they used to say that we influenced them a lot. We were flattered by that, and people would ask, how do they compare to you? And I would say these guys are a collection of incredible lead singers, but they donít do the group singing like we do and thatís a major distinction. People who do not have the Ďearsí to hear that may not understand that. When you listen to what they do as a group, itís just OK. But what they do as lead singers, I think, is what made them as strong as they wereóand still are, because they are still performing. And we could make those kinds of comparisons with other groups. I am actually a big fan of Boyz II Men, but thatís what makes Take 6 stand out. We have a unique combination of gifts.
I donít know how many Grammy nominations/awards and other awards the group has received to dateómainly, because I lost count. But looking back on the time that youíve spent with the group, what comes to mind?
The first thing that always comes to my mind is that I never thought we would still be doing it after all these years. It boggles my mind that we have been able to stay together as a group. This is an interesting story: I had a pastor who I used to work with before I joined Take 6. After we signed our record deal he called and said, ĎYou guys wonít last very long.í From his pastoral perspective, we werenít being spiritual enough in our approach. Over the years I moved away, and every couple of years I would get a call from him; it would start off with, ĎYou guys still together?í And I would say, ĎYeah man, God is still blessing us!í (laughs) and he would say, ĎItís not going to last.í One of his things was, ĎOnly what you do for Christ will last.í After we hit the ten-year mark he called and asked, ĎAre you guys still together?í When I told him that we were still together he said, ĎYou know, the Beatles were together for ten years and they broke up!í I just had to laugh, even though it was intended as an insult. That was really funny to me.
Does the pastor still call? And if so, what is he saying now?
Eventually he stopped calling.
He is probably owns every recording the group has made and is one of your biggest fans!
A closet Take 6 fan Ö thatís a great story. With any luck he will stumble onto this interview!
(Laughter) I really think, in all seriousness, that we were all providentially called to be in this group, and thatís why we have been together as long as we have. Another aspect of it is, there are a lot of artists that we have seen come and go. Especially groups. Itís perhaps easier to go for quite awhile when you are a solo artist. When you are a group, you have to deal with egos and differences of opinions. If we just did this for ourselves, it probably would have ended long ago, but we have always seen this as a ministry.
A higher calling Ö
A higher calling that also keeps the egos in check. And thatís probably the most amazing part of all of this, for me.
Your music is hip and beautiful, but itís the spiritual component that really makes it special.
And what better way to end this conversation than on that note? Please give my regards to the members of the group. I hope to see you perform live the next time Take 6 performs in New York. Keep spreading the gospel and good luck with The Standard.
Visit Take 6:
Take 6 (1990)
Take 6 - Greatest Hits (2007)
Take 6 Ė We Wish You a Merry Christmas/Carol of the Bells (1999)