Phil Ranelin: Vibes from the Tribe / The Time Is Now!


By Maurice Bottomley

Two good reissues here. Try this for size—hard hitting free jazz, a touch of psychedelia, world music flourishes, funk basslines, Mothers of Invention vocals, revolutionary politics, and a trombonist indebted to Coltrane by way of Tamla Motown. Irresistible, I trust you will agree. If not irresistible then certainly intriguing. Congratulations to Hefty for making these neglected works once again available. Furthermore, and largely thanks to the broken beats/acid jazz generation, they are likely be picked up on by more than the few devotees who tracked down Tribe records when they first appeared back in the 1970s.

Phil Ranelin (trombone) and Wendell Harrison (saxes) formed Tribe under the banner of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic movement, one of whose tenets was the promotion of avant-garde jazz as the soundtrack to black militancy. Tribe was, in essence, the Detroit variant of AACM in Chicago, BAG in St. Louis UGMAA in Los Angeles and CBA in New York. The organisation was distinctive in that it was a record label as well as a group of musicians. It also functioned as a co-operative in a wider community sense, producing a magazine and being involved with various self-help projects. There were differences stylistically too. The Motor City revolutionaries mixed up their free jazz experiments with funk, soul and African rhythms. This produced a less ascetic body of work than some of their counterparts—still too far out for that moment but one that has found favour with a section of the post “rare groove” audience. The time may never have been less “Now” for the politics that underpins these projects but it might just be so for its hybrid musical offspring.

In terms of jazz history the early seventies tends to be represented as the fag-end of an increasingly abstract freeform style. Either that or it is the narrative of Miles Davis’ jazz-rock adventures followed by a snobbishly despised descent into commercial jazz-funk. These discs disrupt that view. Tribe, along with labels like Black Jazz and Strata East, can be read as one more missing link in African-American musical history. Restoring that link returns experimentalism in jazz to a black base, gives it a funkier sound and should quash the view that the form became moribund until the arrival of Marsalis a decade later. Alive and definitely kicking—these are also useful time-capsules from a more diverse era than is generally acknowledged.

Ranelin had grown up in Indianapolis, moved to New York and hung out with Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson—the influence of both is detectable. The next stop was Detroit—home of car factories, a lively radical scene and, of course, Berry Gordy’s musical empire. Here he worked as a session musician for Stevie Wonder and The Temptations and went on the road as part of the ludicrously named Funky Dashikis—the Motown horn section. Think about this when you next listen to those records. Then ponder a moment on the strict demarcations set up around musical genres.

If tightness and structure typify Motown orchestrations, looseness and freedom equally characterise post-Coleman jazz. That tension is evident here and the result is fascinating. The early session is the more “Black Arts”—very free, heavy on percussion and collective improvisation—while the second defies categorisation. “The Time Is Now” is in many ways more consistent but “Vibes” contains the more striking numbers and should interest the contemporary club jazz crowd. Both records challenge and exhilarate in equal measure.

The later album is definitely a little odd. Thanks to CDs, the title track is now available in three forms. The original short album version, a long extended take and—a real blast from the past this—an 8-track version (ask someone older to explain). The short version is somehow not quite free jazz and not quite funk but manages to be funky and jazzy nonetheless. A plaintive dawn chorus soundscape precedes a hip-hop style drum pattern. Deep, resonant trombone lines are added, while bass and electric piano bring in a seventies blaxploitation movie feel. If this was not enough, Harrison and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave add an unearthly accompaniment to Ragelin’s lugubrious work. It is all over before you have caught hold of it—but happily the lengthier versions provide sufficient time to digest this multi-layered composition. “Sounds from the Village” is a more rhythm driven variation on a similar theme—early Earth, Wind and Fire on acid is as close as I can get. Some rough guitar work adds grit to this one. Ranelin’s tone is rich and Harrison’s sax buzzes around it tellingly.This also now comes with an extended take.

There are two vocal tracks which manage to be both charming and jaw-droppingly hopeless. Ranelin is no singer. The music on both sounds good, rather like the Mothers in their Uncle Meat phase. Actually the vocals are very Zappa-esque too but whereas Frank went for humour these are desperately earnest—in content and intent. For the record, “For the Children” wins out over “Wife” by dint of a rather catchy TV theme type melody. Quirky as they come and I am still not sure whether I hate or like either song. Safer ground next, as the Griot Galaxy join Ranelin for an African-World Music work-out. “He the One We All Know” is magnificent—atmospheric and expansive—a mystical and magical twenty minutes featuring Frank Hanif Bey on reeds and David Abdul Kahafz on zeetar (whatever that is). Something of a free jazz update of Ellington’s “Caravan”, it is truly captivating. Ranelin is again outstanding as a player and group leader.

Moving back a couple of years, The Time Is Now! doubles the running time of the original album with alternate takes and is duly enhanced. More for the jazz-heads, its highlights include the long title theme—actually “The Time Is Now for Change”—and some solid, skilful playing amidst the full-on drive and chaos. Two drummers are used and keep the sound constantly busy—too much so for my liking. It is worth the ride though. Other goodies are the relatively conventional, hard bop jam “Of This Gone By” and the after-hours, city streets ballad “13th and Senate”, which would do credit to Charles Mingus. Of the soloists, Ranelin is excellent, whether on the righteous anger of the title cuts or on the cheerfully eccentric bossa nova “Black Destiny”. The second rendition of “Time…” features Haroun el Ni on a very menacing bass clarinet worthy of Dolphy at his best. Mention must also be made of Keith Vreeland who handles keyboard duties with great verve. Belgrave and Harrison both make their presence felt and the whole ensemble blows mightily and hard. Such generation of energy is impressive and typical of the collective improvisation movement but the untypical willingness to vary tone and texture is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the set.

Taken as a whole, what you have here is a good example of a genre that should logically be very badly dated. Its origins and premises are absolutely locked into a specific set of social and historical circumstances. Yet it all sounds better today than ever. Speculation as to why that should be is no doubt profitable but I am simply content to see this stuff on the shelves again. Universal Sounds started the ball rolling with a Tribe compilation a couple of years back. If you are a little timid you may want to check that first. However, the full sets plus plenty of added extras - not forgetting the original sleevenotes and artwork - make these worthwhile purchases. Some of the players are now major figures (Belgrave), some you can still catch in jazz clubs around Detroit (Vreeland). All of them were part of an important and generally sidelined episode in jazz. Ranelin has worked constantly since the seventies but should find himself even more in demand now. The time, in actual fact, is overdue.. for many things. One of those is proper recognition of some wonderful, principled music and the people who made it.

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