Ranelin Commemorates 40 Years of Tribe
On Feb. 17, trombonist Phil Ranelin stepped onstage for the first set of a two-night program at Los Angeles’ World Stage Performance Gallery. The performance marked the 40-year anniversary of the release of Message From The Tribe on the Tribe label, a Detroit-based jazz collective that Ranelin co-founded with tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison. That evening, Ranelin’s quintet grazed a broad range of material from the label’s expansive history—a musical journey that has taken Ranelin from his native Indianapolis to Detroit and Los Angeles.
“Phil’s always had that ‘singer’s sound,’ but with that wide range,” said trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who played with Ranelin on Message From The Tribe. “I’ve always thought it’s wonderful how he plays that big, wide horn and gets that buttery sound.”
Tribe was the Detroit manifestation of a movement toward artistic freedom that sprouted in the 1960s. Like Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and St. Louis’ Black Artists’ Group (BAG), the artists played and recorded their own music, and like all Detroit musical endeavors of the period, the label existed in the shadow of Motown soul.
Each member composed and had an individual vision. “The style was Detroit,” Harrison said. “We had the funky beats from Motown and the George Clinton culture on the bottom, and the bebop stuff on the top. You could dance to it, but intellectually, you could appreciate the solos, too.”
Aside from collective and individual releases on the Tribe label, there was the stylish and political Tribe magazine. When the “rare groove” compilations of the ’80s and ’90s appeared, Tribe albums were prime raw material for the emerging hip-hop aesthetic.
In Indianapolis, Ranelin matured around such players as Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and Melvin Rhyne. J.J. Johnson, a family friend, was his prime trombone inspiration. “He had everything,” Ranelin said. “I also had six lessons with David Baker, spread out over three years because there was so much information he gave me to work on.”
The local bandstands were competitive—“Guys didn’t invite you up if you weren’t ready,” Ranelin cautioned—but visiting Detroit players passed the word that their town was trombone-shy.
In 1968, Ranelin moved to Detroit and almost immediately started working with the Temptations; he’s heard on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” among many other tracks. He found the Motown studios stocked with fine jazz instrumentalists. “James Jamerson,” he observes, citing the great Fender bassist, “played upright on some of those dates; he aspired to be the next Paul Chambers.”
Motown moved its operation to Los Angeles in ’72, the year Tribe was born. Like other Detroit jazz players, Ranelin wanted to get his own music heard. “The aim of Tribe was to provide work opportunities and produce original music. It was an umbrella where composers from Detroit could showcase their music,” he explained. “It was about survival.”
Ranelin also stressed the sustaining hand of Tribe pianist and composer Harold McKinney. “He was a little older than we were,” he said. “We went through periods of dissension but he kept us together, reminding us that we were doing something important, something historic.”
Harrison added, “He was kind of like a priest, very spiritual.”
Over the years, reissues by Dusty Groove, P Vine and Hefty, and recent releases on WideHive Records have spread Ranelin’s original message of creative freedom. “I saw one of the original albums,” Ranelin said, shaking his head, “going on eBay for $1,700. I wish I had kept a bunch of them.”
As for the numerous Tribe samples on contemporary recordings, Ranelin has yet to see monetary acknowledgement. “Shouldn’t I be compensated somehow?” he said.