In all of music, few things are as edifying to the soul as pristinely executed vocal harmonies. At risk of oversimplifying, this is the main reason why Take 6 has enjoyed such success over its 20-plus years of existence. Ever since the a cappella sextet's self-titled debut pulled in a pair of Grammys in 1987, its fusion of gospel, doo-wop and contemporary jazz forms has been a veritable North Star on the vocal-group landscape.
Take 6 co-founder Claude McKnight, who spent his formative years in North Tonawanda as part of a family with music in its bones -- his brother Brian is a contemporary R&B superstar in his own right -- has a lot to be excited about these days, as his long-standing group shows no signs of letting up. "The Standard," an exploration of traditional jazz songbooks and Take 6's 10th studio record, was released this week. And to celebrate, the group will perform a much-anticipated set Saturday in Buffalo State's Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall.
McKnight is excited to be returning to the city of his youth; talking about it brought on a bit of nostalgia.
"I miss a lot of my friends growing up, and my band teacher and choral teacher from high school -- they were big influences on me," he said.
Like so many soul legends before him, McKnight honed his craft from a young age, at home and in church, where his grandfather was choral director.
"Some of my earliest memories are of going to choir rehearsal with my mom and seeing him lead the choir," the singer reflected. "That was invaluable to me when I got to college and started doing it myself.
"Music was always in our house. Since we were 3 or 4 years old, we've had a lot of family reunions, with 50 or 60 people -- still do -- and literally, aside from catching up with each other and eating, we sing."
When hearing McKnight and his colleagues on "The Standard," leaning into the swinging "Sweet Georgia Brown" or teaming up with Aaron Neville on "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans," it's clear these guys are naturals. Their slick, effortless-sounding, six-part harmonies always seem to form a crisp, seamless whole.
While McKnight's voice was honed to perfection as a youngster, his ear for notes was developed with the help of an unlikely teacher: the trombone. The singer credits his time playing the instrument in high school symphony band and jazz band as a valuable training ground for his now-excellent ear.
"If you think about a trombone, you realize that although it has a slide, there are no dedicated positions for it," he explained. "So for you to become a good trombone player, your ear has to be good enough to know exactly where to put that slide. It's kind of the same principle in doing close harmonies and a cappella music. If your ear can hear it, your voice can sing it. If you have a great voice and a bad ear, you'll be a really bad singer."
Armed with angelic pipes and that practiced ear, McKnight formed the group that would become Take 6 at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., in 1980. Admitting that he was drawn to the a cappella style because "the college had a really rich a cappella heritage, and we wanted to have one of the cool groups on campus," McKnight recalled the moment when Take 6 truly congealed.
Tenor Mark Kibble was walking through a campus building when he heard the group -- then a quartet -- rehearsing in a bathroom. He walked in, added some harmonies, and everything fell into place from there.
Why were they in the bathroom?
"Even if you can't sing, you sound better in a bathroom," McKnight said with a chuckle. "The reverberation off the walls, it's just like going into the studio and hearing your voice raw, as opposed to putting reverb on it. Even a really good singer sounds better with a little bit of reverb."
WHO: Take 6
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $30 to $35
INFO: 878-3005 or www.buffalostate.edu/pac