In Detroit, 1971, trombonist Phil Ranelin and saxophonist Wendell Harrison started a band, a recording company, and a magazine, and called them the Tribe. Though the three organizations lasted until 1978, Ranelin's Vibes From the Tribe, issued in 1976, was the last of eight records issued by Tribe/Time Is Now Productions. P-Vine Records in Japan has issued a handsomely packaged one CD compilation of material selected from the label (there's a facsimile of the magazine included in the box), but Vibes From the Tribe is the first of the label's actual recordings to be issued in full, with added bonus tracks courtesy of Ranelin and the Hefty label. Tortoise boss John McEntire has restored the master tapes to their former glory, and added some touches to the unreleased material, with full approval from Ranelin, which give the music a contemporary feel. Musically, this is not only a solid portrait of Detroit's jazz scene in the mid-'70s, but is also a definitive portrait of its cultural mentality. While everyone in the nation had written off the city as a wasteland, a space devoid of anything worth celebrating, its residents were in the process of creating some of the most vital jazz, literature, and art in its history. Vibes From the Tribe is a wildly diverse collection of tunes to be on a single long-player. Ranelin and his friends -- among them tenor saxophonist and flutist Wendell Harrison, pianist Harold McKinney, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, bassist Ralph Armstrong, percussionists Bud Spangler and Barbara Huby, and drummer George Davidson -- offered a portrait of the city through the jazz traditions that influenced it in the previous 20 years. Deep, hard jazz fusion and funk can be heard in the two versions of the title track (one of them an unreleased eight-track version) and "Sounds From the Village." While both echo the influence of Miles' groundbreaking electric band, the identities of these tracks are firmly rooted in a local musical history that includes Teddy Wilson, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, the Funk Brothers rhythm section at Motown, John Lee Hooker, and George Clinton. There is also the more accessible side of Detroit jazz, represented here in "Wife" and "For the Children," which features plaintive but wondrously expressive vocals by Ranelin. Each tune swings with a beauty and airiness that were missing from the jazz of the day -- think of a way more soulful Ben Sidran and you'll get the picture.
But the heart of the set is in its earliest tune, Ranelin's first composition written way back in 1966, "He the One We All Knew." It's played here by an ensemble that included Ranelin on bass trombone and percussion and members of Detroit's premier vanguard unit, Griot Galaxy, with the legendary Faruq Z. Bey on saxophones, Tariq Samad on drums, and David Abdul Kahafiz on zeetar, a traditional African griot instrument. Also lending a hand is pianist Ken Thomas and Armstrong on bass. The piece begins as a modal workout, with Bey and Ranelin taking the first solos. The zeetar creates a drone not unlike a sitar for the rhythm section to build upon; the horn players then find their place in the melody together and light it up, taking it into harmonic territory that appears to surprise even them! The exchanges between Ranelin's bass trombones and Bey's soprano and tenor are knotty, intricate, and -- even in the freer moments -- rooted in the deep greasy groove inherent in all of Detroit's music from the era. Over 18 minutes in length, it is a masterpiece of vanguard jazz, and because of its rhythmic and tonal characteristics, is accessible even to those not interested in the genre. The extended versions of the title track and "Sounds of the Village" have been made manifestly "more Detroit" by McEntire. He lengthens the range of the bass and drums and sequences phrases so they line up the way the band did in the studio prior to recording them. They groove slow and dark, with long, intricate melody lines and accented backbeats creating a spaciousness not often heard in fusion jazz; but then, this isn't fusion jazz, it's funk jazz. Vibes From the Tribe is the sound of a city no one knew existed, a place vibrant with a cultural vision that included everybody. The Tribe was an organization that was focused on that vision, so much so that it could only last for so long; because it was so busy developing its homegrown identity and getting its talent to voice itself, it didn't have the time -- or the person with the influence -- to carry that vision outside its borders. Having grown up in the city and seen this band over a dozen times, I can say that the Tribe was one of the most unique and gifted jazz ensembles that the '70s ever produced. Until techno, the world didn't know how lucky it was to have a post-Motown Detroit; the evidence is now available to suggest that it should have been paying attention all along. If jazz is your thing, then get this. Period. Thanks, Hefty, for the first in a series of reissues from the Tribe.