He may not be a Detroit native proper, but Phil Ranelin is a vital force within the legacy of incredible underground music born of this city. The now-77-year-old trombonist, composer, and arranger co-founded one of Detroit's most adventurous independent jazz labels in the '70s: Tribe Records. The group was composed of a collective of musicians who, in addition to Ranelin, included fellow co-founder clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison, the late pianist Harold McKinney, and the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, among many others.
Ranelin was born in Indianapolis, where he was influenced by J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery, and other Naptown jazz legends. He spent time in New York as well as Detroit before permanently relocating to Los Angeles in the late '70s, after which he worked with another Indianapolis native, legendary trumpeter (and longtime friend) Freddie Hubbard. But Ranelin will always have a deeply important connection to the city of Detroit through his work with Tribe.
Ranelin was connected to Detroit well before Tribe was formed. In the '60s and '70s, he was working the Motown circuit as a touring musician. At the end of one long touring gig with Stevie Wonder, the man himself approached Ranelin and told him to make sure to give his number to his manager. A few days after the tour ended, Ranelin was back in town and in the studio for his very first Motown session, to which he credits what he says has to have been Wonder's recommendation. "He may not remember that, but I sure do!" Ranelin told us. In 2012, he was recognized for this period in his musical life with a certificate of appreciation as an "Unsung Musician of the Motown Empire," presented by both the Educational Arts Society and then-Mayor Dave Bing.
The music of Tribe Records was quite a bit different, though connected in ways Ranelin would come to appreciate more later in life. Tribe was as spiritual as it was avant-garde — groovy, funky, soulful jazz marked with sincere political awareness, created by impassioned musicians who were in full control of their work and used it as a means to raise black social consciousness. Ranelin released several albums on Tribe, and the members tended to appear on each other's various recordings. The label only released a little over a handful of albums, now legendary for their various unique approaches to funk- and soul-inflected jazz that varied in tone from mellow to uncompromising, often teetering on both. The music is very much of its time and place, yet so deeply GOOD that it's also genuinely timeless — attested to by the fact that Tribe releases have been sampled, anthologized, and reissued both overseas and here in the States too often to count, 40-plus years after the birth of the original label.
A big resurgence came in 2001, when Hefty Records reissued two of Ranelin's most iconic releases: 1974's The Time Is Now! and, of course, 1976's Vibes From the Tribe. The whole thing was orchestrated online back in the late '90s, Ranelin says. "I was one of the first jazz musicians who was dealing with computers at that time. Thank God I had [one]!" he says with a bit of a laugh. Ranelin was immensely pleased with the releases; a rekindling of interest in Tribe had been sparked by crate diggers throughout the years, but with the reissues, the larger world and new audiences were given the chance to develop a fresh appreciation for some of Detroit's deepest experimental jazz cuts.
Modern musicians continue to be intrigued by Ranelin and the spirit of Tribe. Famous Detroit DJ, producer, and techno artist Carl Craig brought the remaining members together in 2007 to record Rebirth, what is technically the first release credited to the group under the name Tribe. In addition to Ranelin, Belgrave, and Harrison, Craig brought out Doug Hammond, who had been a drummer and vocalist on the Tribe release Reflections in the Sea of Nurnen; alongside the core members, a variety of musicians new and old contributed to the spacey grooves of both brand-new songs and fresh versions of Tribe classics. That album, Rebirth, came out in 2009; it was a very gratifying experience for Ranelin, one that resulted in a string of performances across the world with the newly reunited Tribe band.
Ranelin has kept busy in numerous ways throughout the years, as an educator and cultural purveyor as well as performer. In 2011, for example, he was given a Cultural Exchange International grant from the city of Los Angeles to spend three weeks as an artist-in-residence in Panama. Not only did he perform, but he also conducted "Who is Eric Dolphy? Jazz Appreciation Workshops" to educate Panamanians about Dolphy's paternal Panamanian heritage. His first visit there went so well he was invited back last year to perform at the Panama Jazz Festival put on by the Danilo Pérez Foundation. He remembers both experiences very fondly, recollecting his time there with great pleasure and respect.
Most recently, as in this past September, he was inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation Hall of Fame, a hometown honor. Ranelin has been involved with the Indy Jazz Fest since it began in 1999, performing at seven of the festivals since then, but this year's topped them all thanks to the induction and the fact that he packed the house when he played the festival two nights later.
He's been active musically his entire life, most recently performing with his latest incarnations of the Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble and another group on the continuum of his Tribe work, Tribe Renaissance. For the upcoming performance in Detroit at Trinosophes, he will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album Vibes From the Tribe with the quartet that he formed after the dissolution of the Tribe group in the fall of 1976. At the time, Ranelin had a brand-new release and no one to perform the music. He lined up a group of players to form a quartet and coined the group Vibes From the Tribe, with Rod Williams on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, and Tani Tabbal on drums. It is this group that performed at Trinosophes in 2014, with the exception of Djallo Djakate on drums instead, and this configuration that is reuniting to perform for us again this year, with the addition of Marcus Elliot on tenor sax, for an evening performance on Oct. 22 and an afternoon matinee on the 23rd.
In honor of this event, Metro Times spoke with Ranelin about a lifetime spent creating music, the relationship between his experiences with Tribe and Motown, and much more.
Metro Times: Why did you move to Detroit in the first place in the '60s?
Phil Ranelin: I was offered a job and that was a good enough reason for me. There was a club that I frequented on a regular basis, the Jam Session, there in Indianapolis. They had various bands, [including] groups from out of town. This particular Saturday, there was a group from Detroit. I didn't know any of them, but it was a habit of mine just to go by and sit in with whoever was there, so I went up to the band leader and sat in on the whole matinee. The leader's name was Sam Sanders. He really liked the way I played, and he said, "Are you keeping pretty busy down here?" I said, "No." He said, "Detroit's not that far away. If you ever decide to move, please call me." He said he was hooked up with some of the Motown acts. It took me about a week to decide to actually just pick up and move to Detroit. My sister lived there, so I had a place to stay.
Immediately when I arrived, I called him up, and it just so happened that they were rehearsing to go out on tour with the Temptations. He says, 'Why don't you come by?' (Laughs.) And so I did. I got hired for a 10-day tour, and the very first city on the tour was Indianapolis, Indiana! At that time, the tour happened a couple weeks after the rehearsal took place, so I had only been gone less than three weeks, and here I am, back in town with the Temptations. A lot of my friends didn't even know I had moved.
MT: I'll come back to Motown, but first I wanted to ask about Tribe Records. What can you tell me about that time?
Ranelin: We were playing each other's music and the way it came about is myself and Wendell Harrison re-met ... we had met earlier in the '60s, and happened to have re-met at a place called Metropolitan Arts Complex, [which] Harold McKinney was heavily involved in. I can almost remember it vividly. It was a rehearsal of a big band, of all the workshop leaders there at the Complex, and so even though Wendell and I had met, we didn't really get to know each other that well in the '60s, and we didn't immediately recognize each other. So we're in this rehearsal, and I get up and take a solo, and he looks around and says, "Don't I know you? I know you," so then we reintroduced ourselves and got to talking about our goals and dreams. We both were doing a lot of composing at the time, and decided to hook up and start collaborating.
That's the way Tribe actually started. We made it official and went downtown and registered at City Hall. The record company evolved from live concerts that we presented. We started presenting these concerts and then we said, we should record this, so that's how the record company developed. And then later on, Marcus Belgrave was involved in the very first recording, and later on he became a producer also, and then a couple years later Harold McKinney got involved in it. It was a very beautiful thing in terms of [the fact that] guys had outlets for their music through the record label ... Years later, we had a beautiful reunion when Harold was still around. Harold was actually the glue that kept us together because he was a little older, quite a bit older than us, and sometimes, if we were having debates about this and that, how we should be doing things, Harold would step in. He actually predicted that this thing would last. We didn't realize it. I sure didn't. He said, "No, this is forever."
MT: Were you involved at all in the magazine and publishing part of the company?
Ranelin: I was in the very first issue, I had an article and it was called "Sounds from the Village." I didn't remain too much in the magazine part of it. Wendell took that over and developed it into something very, very polished [that] dealt with all aspects of black life, not only in Detroit, but nationally. I was very proud of that magazine. It was a great accomplishment.
MT: Where did the name Tribe come from?
Ranelin: The name Tribe is like an instant connection with the tribes in Africa, and the fact that we considered villages that we occupied here in America as an alternative of the villages of Africa in a sense of small communities, so we thought that that would be a good name to use. Meaning togetherness, in a sense.
MT: I read that you personally gave Angela Davis a copy of Message From the Tribe at a political rally. What was that like?
Ranelin: So true and so gratifying.
MT: I can imagine that was incredibly special. Did you get to engage with her at all?
Ranelin: It wasn't planned and I never was able to engage with her at all. There were a lot of people around, and I managed to get through the crowd and personally put it in her hand. Hopefully she didn't throw it in the trash can. But at least I had the gratification of giving it to her. And as you know, there is a song I had dedicated to her on it.
MT: Right, right. "Angela's Dilemma."
MT: I saw that in 1976 you received the key to the city with Donald Byrd.
Ranelin: It was not only me, the whole group did, which at the time was myself, Wendell, Marcus, Harold, Rod Hicks on bass, and maybe Bud Spangler. It actually happened the night we performed as an opening act for Donald Byrd.
MT: What did your background with Motown bring to your music and how different was it from the Tribe experience?
Ranelin: It has different meaning now than at the time. In all honesty, working for Motown for me was just going to a day job. I didn't fully appreciate what was really happening when I was doing it, and I fully appreciate it now because in more ways than one, Motown was responsible for me even being able to produce records on Tribe Records. I was struggling, I was using the money I was making with Motown in order to finance the productions. There was no record company — myself and Wendell were the record company!
Also, musically I didn't really truly value what I was absorbing at the time. And there again, I'm saying I fully appreciate it now and respect everything that was happening because I was around all these great arrangers with Motown, on the tours and in the studio, brilliant arrangers, and I absorbed some of that, even unknowingly. [This] is something I'm glad I lived long enough to truly value!
MT: Let's talk about Los Angeles, your current home.
Ranelin: LA is special to me because when I got there in November of 1977, unlike Detroit in which I pretty much had a gig offered to me, unlike that situation I didn't have any gig offers, but I had been around a little bit at that time, so I knew people, so I didn't have any doubt that I would be able to survive. I was married at the time, so me and my wife just kind of picked up [and left]. I remember saying this, the winter of 1976 [into 1977], I said, "I don't know how, but there's no way I'm gonna spend another winter in Detroit." It was brutal.
One of the first people I called was Freddie Hubbard. He didn't answer so I left a message, but days go by and I don't hear from him. So I better start looking somewhere else. I located Kent Brinkley, a great bass player from Indianapolis. He was playing at a place called Stage One in Los Angeles, so I got the gig and I was playing with him, then finally I get a call and it's Freddie Hubbard on the line. And he says, "Phillip" — 'cause he always called me Philip — "Are you out here now?" So one of the first gigs I had out here was at the Roxy, one of the biggest venues at the time, with Freddie Hubbard.
MT: What are you most excited about with the upcoming Trinosophes performance?
Ranelin: I'm excited about the guys I'm playing with: Rod Williams, Jaribu Shahid, Djallo Djakate, and also Marcus Elliot, who I've never really played with before, but I've heard many great things about. Two years ago I played with Rod, Jaribu, and Djallo at Trinosophes, [so] I'm looking forward to that [again]. The significance of the performance is built around Vibes From the Tribe, the 40th anniversary of the release of it. That in itself is enough excitement for me, but I'll also have some of the Tribe vinyl from that era [with me]. Unfortunately I won't have but one [original] Vibes From the Tribe, and I don't even know if I'll sell it according to how much I get offered. But I do have the reissues, and I also have a couple of Message From the Tribe.
Some people don't realize that the very first [cover of Message From the Tribe] was not the one with the black cover, or the later colored copy with myself, Wendell, and Jeamel Lee. Neither one of those were the first. There were three versions, and the very first Tribe record was of course Message From the Tribe, but it had a generic picture of the ocean and the words "Message from the Tribe" and the label itself didn't even have the logo on it. So I'll have a couple of those copies and we'll see what happens with that too. And I'll have some CDs for sale. I'm looking forward to it and the music and I won't be exclusively playing music from Vibes From the Tribe, but I will be playing music from it, as well as some of my more recent compositions and I'm very excited about the whole thing. And you know what, I checked out the weather and I can't believe it's still warm there! I'll bring a sweater just in case.
Phil Ranelin and the Vibes From the Tribe quartet play Trinosophes on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 23 at 6 p.m.; 1464 Gratiot Ave, Detroit; 313-737-6606; $20.
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