Take 6: a joyful noise @ QE

Chor Leoni brings lauded gospel group for Vancouver premiere

Deeeeep six! Image: Marta Sowa

Anybody of a certain age – and over 2,000 of us turned out for the Take 6 concert last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre  – probably knows much of the group's repertoire by heart. After all, the male a cappella jazz/blues/gospel sextet has been around, in one form or another, ever since its 1981 launch as a student ensemble at a historically black religious college.

In the ensuing decades, Take 6 has won an unprecedented 10 Grammy’s for their own recordings and shared billing with everyone from Ray Charles to Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Queen Latifah, The Manhattan Transfer and Stevie Wonder.

But to actually see them perform live adds a whole other dimension of appreciation. Local fans finally got that chance thanks to our own, home grown amateur male a cappella ensemble, Chor Leoni, which sponsored the sextet’s Vancouver premiere to kick off the 2018 edition of the annual, 400-voice VanMan Choral Summit.

What makes Take 6 so mesmerizing onstage is its uncanny mix of lockstep coordination and freewheeling improvisation. Those soaring riffs and beatbox spatters dovetail seamlessly with tight-wound doo wop harmony and precision dance moves.

The rigid coordination was all the more evident in the group’s QE staging, which featured – rarely for Take 6 – a completely unadorned stage and costumes as spotlessly white as lawn tennis togs. The whole scene presented a paradox of controlled ecstasy, like a choreographed dervish whirl or a Chassidic bottle dance.

Another paradox: unlike most male a cappella groups, including Chor Leoni itself, the sextet’s tone is dominated by upper register lines rather than throatier male voices. Four of the six members are tenors, including Take 6 founders (and first tenors) Claude McKnight and Mark Kibble, plus second tenors Joey Kibble and David Thomas. And all four tenors demonstrate utter fluency singing falsetto, whether solo or in chorus.

But the dominant treble pitch provides an ideal foil for the scat-singing wizardry of baritone Khristian Dentley and the polymath genius of vocal bassist Alvin Chea. These two more than hold their own, threading their deep melodic lines through the choral weave like the dark figure in a gilt tapestry, or subtly grounding solo flights of falsetto fantasy.

Chea, in particular, plumbs tonal depths that seem almost beyond the range of a human voice. Indeed, in one of the evening's most astounding highlights, he seemed to turn himself into an non-human instrument instead -- a hulking double bass viol that he proceeded to strum and pluck in persuasive pizzicato.

He’s not the only human-turned-instrument onstage, either. Other Take Sixers manage to blare hot licks on wholly imaginary trumpets or beatbox convincing simulacra of everything from trap drums to maracas. Where does a cappella end and ventriloquy begin?

With such a range of tonal textures and colours available to them, the sextet has a penchant for ornate arrangements. Some are so original, in fact, that it takes a few moments of enchanting bafflement before we can recognize the old chestnut melodies under all the filigree.

Instead of its usual gauzy orchestration, Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of My Mind” becomes a hard-driving vocal hustle.  A polyphonal intro approaches the complexity of a Renaissance motet before settling into the well-known strains of the Beatles’ “Every Single Day.”

One favourite Take 6 trick is to assign the audience to sing various doo wop squibs and then drape the resulting tonal scaffolding with some familiar tune (e.g. “Stand By Me”) or daring new solo riff.

And Take 6 soloists can be daring indeed. The 90-minute uninterrupted concert concluded with a round of duelling tenor cadenzas by the brothers Kimmel. It seemed to go on forever, each untoppable vocal arc inviting an even more spectacular riposte.

The only way the sextet could tamp down the audience’s insatiable appetite for encores was with a calming return to the Take 6’s churchy roots: a luminous final chorus of “Hallelujahs.”

Amen.

 

 

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