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Detroit's Tribe spotlighted on new compilation album

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Friday, November 8, 2019

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Few bands in Detroit or anywhere, for that matter are as aptly named as Tribe.

Assembled by jazz saxophonist Wendell Harrison and trombonist Phil Ranelin back in 1971, Tribe became the moniker for a collective of musicians, spoken word and visual artists, writers publishers and others involved in a progressive and often experimental underground that was politically as well as creatively provocative. The bulk of Tribe's work was done during the 70s including on albums such as Harrison's "An Evening with the Devil" and Harrison and Ranelin's "A Message From the Tribe," but the ethos has remained strong ever since.

An underexposed period of Tribe's work now gets its due on "Hometown: Detroit Sessions 1990-2014," an album out this week (Friday, Nov. 8) that features recordings by Tribe and Harrison's subsequent Rebirth Inc. The 10 tracks, many previously unreleased, were recorded at Harrison's WenHa/Rebirth Studios in Midtown Detroit, and during a hot mid-90s performance at the SereNgeti Gallery and Cultural Center, when Harrison recalls "the audience was (channeling) the music and we were just feeding off those vibes." In addition to principles Harrison and Ranelin whose later version of "He the One We All Knew" is a highlight, the set also features contributions from Harold McKinney and his McKinfolk family, pianist Pamela Wise, percussionist Djallo Djakate and poet Mbiyou Chui.

"I've been trying to get distribution for this music for a long time," says Harrison, 77, an Arts Midwest/National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master who's still actively playing and recording. He wound up striking a deal with Strut Records of London, which appreciated what Tribe did more than others he approached.

"The majority of the companies I've dealt with, my experience is they want some hip-hop, rap and more commercial music, homogenized stuff, and it was hard for me to put any of this music I have out over the years," Harrison said. "Strut seems to be vey enthused about our legacy and our history." So much so that the label is planning a second volume of Tribe recordings, as well.

For Harrison, 77, it's a welcome embrace for both music and a scene he's more than justifiably proud to have helped create. The Detroit native, a Northwestern High School graduate, started playing clarinet when he was 7 and switched to tenor saxophone as a teenager. He was performing professionally by the age of 14 including a stint in Choker Campbell's band backing future Motown stars such as Marvin Gaye. Harrison moved to New York in 1960, where he played with Hank Crawford, Grant Green, Sun Ra and others, eventually moving to California and finally returning to Detroit in 1971.

Teaching at the city's Metro Arts center, Harrison hooked up with Ranelin and they envisioned Tribe as a record company and an artist assembly more than a band, building a corps that included McKinney, trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, pianist Kenny Cox, drummer Doug Hammond and others. There was an issues-oriented Tribe magazine, published by Harrison and his first wife, Patricia, and all manner of gatherings that were part of the collective consciousness.

But, Harrison affirms, music was always at the center of the Tribe.

"We were making a lot of interesting music," Harrison recalls. "The music was kind of like the groove on the bottom R&B grooves, Latin, bebop ideas and then phrases on the top. It was a nice little combination that reflected the R&B culture here in Detroit as well as the bebop folks that were creating music that came from here, like Barry Harris, the Jones brothers, Betty Carter, Sonny Stitch. It was something they wouldn't take to in, like, New York, but in Detroit people really gravitated to it. They liked the sound."

The new "Hometown" collection also underscores the Afrocentric socio-political issues Tribe has taken on since its origins, particularly on tracks such as "Ode to Black Mothers," "The Slave Ship Enterprise," "Marcus Garvey" and "He the One We All Knew." Decades later, Harrison is struck by how relevant the material remains.

"The music is timely," he notes. "It reflects on the terrain. It reflects on the politics. It reflects on what's happening as we plow through this journey. History repeats itself, but it seems to be more intense than it was even in the 60s, when we had the same issues, pretty much. So we keep on saying the same old things."

Some of Tribe's principals Harrison, Ranelin, Belgrave and Hammond were brought together again by Detroit electronic artist Carl Craig for his 2009 album "Tribe Rebirth." Deaths have thinned the ranks over the years, but those who remain stay busy. Harrison and Ranelin, now based in Los Angeles, are doing a tour of high schools organized by bassist and Michigan State University jazz studies director Rodney Whittaker, and Harrison is also playing Nov. 14 at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, the saxophonist is hatching plans to do more with the Tribe-related materials he's accumulated over the years.

"I've got a lot of tracks and footage just kind of stored away in my studio," he says. "I sent (Strut), like, 50 different recordings over to London and they picked these 10, but there's a lot more there. This music will outlive us some of us, it already has. I just want to make sure it has a way to get out."

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