While he started out as a Motown session player, trombonist Phil Ranelin left that behind in the '70s, instead pursuing a style that blended post-Coltrane post bop with Afro-Cuban rhythms and harmonies. With Inspiration
, Ranelin delivers an album firmly planted in these traditions, paying tribute to a number of his influences and past collaborators, including Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Eric Dolphy and, of course, Coltrane.
Ranelin's nonet combines saxophones, bass clarinet and, on occasion, flutes, to create a rich horn section that blends beautifully with Ranelin's warm trombone. By eschewing the inclusion of more top-heavy trumpets, his brass section avoids the brashness often found in larger ensembles. Still, that doesn't stop Ranelin's arrangements from being absolutely vibrant; his arrangements jump off the page and out of the speakers in an adventurous yet compelling way that is reverent to their sources yet has a vibe all its own. Owing more to the sound of the '60s Impulse! recordings than the more often-emulated Blue Note records of the same time period, Ranelin aims for a more cluttered dense ambience that still manages to be completely accessible.
His trombone playing has never been better. With adventurous ideas and a lush tone that is never brash, Ranelin's solos are soulful, melodic and, at the same time, a little curious, occasionally heading outwards yet never losing site of the material's essence. Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders guests, appropriately, on "This One's for Trane," and his distinctive, harmonics-laden sound brings back clear memories of Coltrane, over the modal backdrop of rhythm section team Danny Grissett on piano, bassist Jeff Littleton, drummer Lorca Hart and percussionist Taumbu.
And while the influence of Coltrane's modal vamps is evident, so too is a strong sense of swing. "Horace's Scope" and "Spirit of Dolphy" both move at a clip, challenging the soloists to keep up. "HT's Waltz," an early respite from the generally high energy of the record, finds Ranelin playing over a rich combination of reeds and flutes. The only real misstep of an otherwise outstanding collection is "Beyond a Memory," where Ranelin's vocals and lyrics, while serviceable, are on the pedestrian side, which is a shame as the tune itself is solid, with a strong solo by Wendell Harrison, who collaborated with Ranelin in Stevie Wonder's band in the '70s.
Still, one misfire is not enough to detract from an energetic and passionate set that demonstrates Ranelin's strong abilities as a player, writer and arranger. Inspiration clearly refers to Ranelin's many influences, but it also alludes to a deeper spiritual connection that pervades this immensely satisfying set.
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Personnel: Phil Ranelin (trombone, cow bell, vocal), Keith Fiddmont (soprano and tenor saxophones, flute), George Harper Jr. (tenor saxophone, flute), Zane Musa (alto and soprano saxophones), Louis Van Taylor (bass clarinet, flute and alto flute, soprano saxophone), Danny Grissett (grand piano), Jeff Littleton (acoustic bass), Lorca Hart (drums), Taumbu (congas, various percussion)
With Special Guests: Pharoah Saunders (tenor saxophone on "This One's for Trane"), Wendell Harrison (tenor saxophone on "Beyond a Memory"), Michael Session (alto saxophone on "Spirit of Dolphy"), Dayna Sean Stephens (tenor saxophone on "Horace's Scope")