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Tribeology

Ah, those pholkes at Soul Jazz Records have done it again. Mere months after their fascinating (and long overdue) study of indie jazz cover art of the 1970s, they've re-released 2004's A Message from the Tribe, a lovingly restored anthology of the underground Detroit jazz-funk label Tribe Records. The specially-packaged box set contains early performances by trombone madman Phil Ranelin [pictured below] before he moved out to LA-LA Land and became an integral part of our local "scene" -- if one can call it that. We recommend seeking out Ranelin's Nixon-era lost classics like The Time is Now (1974) and Vibes from the Tribe (1976).

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Check out this review of the comp from Pitchfork Media's Mark Richardson below:

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People play music for many reasons: to express something personal, act cool, meet people, have fun-- maybe even to make money. Sometimes, people play music because they want to belong to a community. And once in a while, community-driven sounds intersect with a historic and political moment, and music takes on special significance.

Such was the case with the Tribe, a creative collective founded in Detroit in 1972 by trombonist Phil Ranelin and reed player Wendell Harrison and whose media arm included a label and quarterly magazine. The Tribe was born out of the African-American consciousness of the Civil Rights era, and its mission was to further the cause of black empowerment. Its magazine featured news and editorials on the issues of the day-- busing, government corruption, the dimming economic climate-- alongside discussion of music. The label issued the work of area musicians, some of whom made a living as session players for Motown (the company left Detroit for L.A. the year Tribe was founded) while simultaneously pursuing jazz. Everything about the Tribe was local, intent on reflecting and documenting the surrounding community. There was a lot of uncertainty in Detroit in the early 1970s-- the auto industry was declining, parts of the city had been destroyed during riots in the late 60s, and population was in the early stages of a long, dramatic decline. The Tribe was a group of people banding together, trying so sort through it all as it happened.

Message From the Tribe, originally issued in 1996 and now re-issued by Soul Jazz's Universal Sound imprint with new packaging, gives an overview of Tribe's output during its five-year run. The music is most striking for its eclectic, without-borders approach: though "jazz" is an appropriate catchall term and the music feels of a piece, the individual tracks defy easy categorization. In the notes, comparisons are drawn between the Tribe's mission and that of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, but the music here is comparatively accessible, with a steady, danceable pulse, and it never veers into avant-garde abstraction. Ranelin, represented as a leader on three of the comp's 12 tracks, plays jazz, but he was ultimately re-discovered by the rare groove set, which gives an idea of his dedication to hypnotic rhythm. While his "Vibes From the Tribe" combines the ethereal harmonic drift of Miles Davis circa Nefertiti with the bass-driven grooves concurrently being explored by Herbie Hancock, "For the Children", though certainly still jazz, finds him singing as well as soloing on trombone. The music billed to the Tribe-- basically an all-star band drawn from members of the collective, including Ranelin and Harrison-- ranges from the nimble funk blowing session "Beneficent" to the politicized message of hope "What We Need", with vocals by Jeamel Lee. Another vocal cut, Doug Hammond's "Moves", is a strange and haunting ballad featuring Hammond's earthy voice trading melodic lines with violin, Fender Rhodes, and Moog.

The music from Message From the Tribe is strong, a great set of open-minded and accessible jazz from an exciting time in the music's history. But the full impact of the package, which includes a 60-page booklet featuring reprints from the magazine along with postcards containing additional covers from the publication, provides depth. Looking through the essays and news alongside the advertisements for black-owned businesses, the music's context as the center of a community becomes clear. There's an article by a student from Wayne State University on Watergate, a piece outlining the basics of the then-current recession, and a feature on Jesse Jackson's burgeoning Operation PUSH. There are also music reviews and interviews. In Tribe-- "Detroit's First Magazine for Black Awareness" was the subtitle-- the lines between politics, activism, art, and entertainment are not just unclear: No one seemed to see any reason to draw them in the first place. When you spend so much time enjoying the easy benefits of commitment-free consumption, it's easy to forget about such possibilities.

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