SIX microphones. Six stylish guys. That's all. They step up to the microphones, snap their fingers in unison, and start to sing.
And what singing! Take 6, as the group calls itself, sounds like six Stevie Wonders performing with the panache of the Hi-Los or the Four Freshman. Not only do they have that spine-tingling, jazz-inflected vocal precision; they also have a rhythm-and-blues backbeat, a doo-wop flair, and their own brand of playful humor.
Take 6 has been applauded by critics and a number of pop musicians, including Brian Wilson, Anita Baker, and Quincy Jones. And the group has been nominated for three Grammys this year for an album entitled, aptly enough, ``Take 6.''
The nominations in the Pop and Jazz categories, however, don't say as much about the group as Best Soul Gospel Performance by a Duo, Group, Choir, or Chorus. This is the heart of Take 6 - contemporary, meaningful spiritual music. And they say, no matter how famous they get - Grammy nominations, MTV exposure, major-label recording contracts - they'll remain true to their religious roots.
``Take 6 will not do any secular music,'' says Mervyn Warren (better known as Merv), who sings in, and arranges for, the group. But it will sing in secular venues. ``That's what we want to happen, because we consider this to be a ministry,'' Mr. Warren continues. ``We are wanting to share this with people who might not ordinarily hear gospel music.... So, for people who have a taste for jazz or some other things, hopefully we can get our message across.''
The members of Take 6 all studied at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. Two are still there. One of those, Cedric Dent, who is working on his PhD in music theory, couldn't be on hand for our recent pre-concert interview, because he couldn't leave school to fly to New York until the last minute. The other, Alvin Chea (known as Vinnie) will get his degree this year.
``I'm studying communications and English, and I graduate June 4, at 10:59 a.m.,'' said Mr. Chea. The others studied everything from computer programming and business administration to biology and chemical engineering - in addition, of course, to music. Three are trombonists, and all six play piano.
So how did Take 6 get together to form this out-of-the-ordinary a cappella gospel group?
Mark Kibble, who (along with David Thomas) sings tenor and also arranges for the group, explained, ``When I got into high school, I met Merv. He had a group there, and he did most of the arranging for it. Whenever we did a cappella music, we always added to it and tried to make it sound as up to date as possible. Claude [McKnight] generally tells the story of how we met in the bathroom; there was a quartet rehearsing with Claude in the bathroom, and I walked in on them. I added a part, making it a five-member group, and performed with them that night.''
Merv Warren became part of that group, too, in 1980, and before long the group evolved into Take 6.
``All of us grew up in Christian homes, and we listened to a lot of Christian music,'' said Mr. McKnight, the group's director. ``We got into [listening to] the Singers Unlimited and the Hi-Los in our high school and college years - and some Manhattan Transfer.''
BECAUSE all six members are Seventh-Day Adventists, it was natural for them to choose to perform religious music. They all had varied backgrounds; some had studied classical music, and all had listened to jazz, pop, rhythm-and-blues, and big-band music. As a result, they started combining these influences in original ways in new compositions and innovative arrangements on some familiar biblical themes - David and Goliath, Mary and Martha, the River Jordan.
``I think just about all of our arrangements go through evolutionary processes,'' said McKnight. ``We'll have an arrangement that is set or structured, but during the course of a performance or over the course of years, somebody will say, `Let's throw this in,' or `Let's do this,' and we just keep adding things.''
``We are not relying on any accompaniment,'' added Warren, ``So there are holes that happen naturally in our songs, and on the spur of the moment we find ways to fill them in.''
Although they all read music, they usually learn their parts by ear - and they learn them to perfection. But, even though they enjoy polishing the musical aspects of their songs, it's the message they want audiences to notice most of all.
``It's a challenge,'' says Mr. Chea. ``When we perform in a club setting, we remind people that, even though they might get into the arrangements, please listen to the lyrics. Also we make comments between the songs. We don't preach at the audience, but we relate our experience to them - what our Christianity has done for us. And with that, we also make little requests like: Please, no drinking or smoking during the performance. That kind of thing.''
Edging up on national exposure during the Feb. 22 Grammy Awards, Take 6 seems to be more than ready to stick with its religious roots in the secular world of pop music.