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Pete Cosey: Guitar Catharsis

Pete Cosey

There’s a cryptic story that Pete Cosey tells about one notorious session he recorded during his days as a staff guitarist at Chess Records. The date was for the legendary Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and took place in November 1968. Earlier that year, Cosey had participated in the controversial Electric Mud project, an attempt by Marshall Chess, son of label owner Leonard Chess, to market Muddy Waters to the burgeoning hippie market by surrounding the revered bluesman’s Deltafied pipes with fuzz bass, wah-wah guitar, flutes, tambourines and trance-like organ drones.

Electric Mud may have outraged some of the blues purists who had purchased Waters’ acoustic blues classic, More Real Folk Blues, just a year before, but Chess’ gamble paid off. Many of the same rock fans who that same year purchased copies of Jeff Beck’s Truth, Cream’s Wheels of Fire, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes’ Journey To the Center of the Mind did indeed pick up on the psychedelic renditions of Waters classics like “She’s Alright,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy,” along with a curious cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”

Following up on the crossover success of Electric Mud, Marshall Chess decided to apply the same psychedelic formula to another legendary blues artist on the Chess roster, one Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf). But the Wolf was not having any of it.

As Cosey says of that memorable session: “Wolf was outraged when we were cutting. Muddy only showed a bit of doubt during his sessions but the Wolf was furious. I had all my gadgets at the session-a Jordan Bosstone distortion pedal, a couple of wah-wah pedals and an Echoplex-and, man, he didn’t want to hear that at all! I have some pictures of that session and he was scowling pretty bad at me in a few.

“Anyway, I had a really long beard during those days; it was like down to the navel and I’d sometimes braid it. So on one occasion during the session, Wolf walks up to me and says in that raspy voice of his, ‘Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off into the lake on your way to the barbershop?’ I mean, he just wiped me out with one stroke, man! Covered all the territory-the long hair, the beard, the wah-wahs and the whole deal.”

Thirty-five years later, Cosey was reunited in the studio with the same musicians who played on that 1968 session for Howlin’ Wolf-drummer Morris Jennings, saxophonist Gene Barge, bassist Louis Satterfield, flutist Don Myrick and fellow guitarist Phil Upchurch-for a segment of the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary The Blues. For their installment of the seven-part series, which aired on PBS in 2006, that original Chess Records gang joined with turntablist Johnny Juice and rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy to re-ignite the Wolf’s legacy. Their segment, “Godfathers and Sons,” also showed the strong connection between the blues and hip-hop, a lesson that Cosey continues to convey with his ongoing series of musical presentations in the Chicago public schools as Saint Pete and the Sounds of Time.

“The blues is so profound, man,” says the Chicago native. “That’s one thing I’m trying to lay on the youngsters, about the blues being the facts of life, as Willie Dixon used to say. And these kids are embracing the blues. I always start the presentations off by asking some questions: Who likes blues? Who likes jazz? And some hands will go up for that. And when I ask how many like rap, everybody’s hands go up. So, of course, these kids were brought up on hip-hop music but when you present the blues to them, oh, man, they absolutely love it.”

The inherent bluesy character of Cosey’s guitar playing always stood out during his Chess session-man years, whether it was on Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit “Rescue Me,” Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” the following year, or a string of singles for Jackie Ross, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Mitty Collier and the Radiants. Cosey’s potent blues guitar work also came in handy on the road with Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler and Gene Ammons. That blues-drenched quality even cut through the din of Miles Davis’ most provocative bands of the mid-’70s, which reached a high plateau of electronic improvisation with a trio of live recordings in Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea. Check out “Maiysha” and the shuffle boogie section of “Interlude” (aka “Right Off”) from Agharta, recorded on Feb. 1, 1975, at Osaka Festival Hall in Japan, for a sampling of Cosey’s brand of scorching blues psychedelia.

The otherworldly sonic textures that Cosey conjured up with his heavily-effected guitar brought a Hendrix-ian sensibility to the tumultuous proceedings of Miles’ avant-funk collective. As author Paul Tingen wrote in Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books), “Pete Cosey’s jaw-dropping solos on Agharta are a major revelation. Sometimes growling, scurrying around all corners like a caged tiger, sometimes soaring like a bird, sometimes deliriously abstract, sometimes elegantly melodic and tender, his electric guitar concept is one of the most original to have been devised on the instrument. It still sounds advanced in the 21st century.”

Guitarist-bandleader-writer Greg Tate, who featured Cosey on a recording with his adventurous Burnt Sugar ensemble (2004’s The Rites, a Butch Morris conduction of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre de Printemps”), calls Cosey the Cecil Taylor of guitar. “He’s the guy,” says Tate, “who, after Hendrix, showed you how ‘out’ you could go with guitar playing, particularly in the improvised context.”

Cosey’s waves of dissonance and sonic shrapnel, along with his radical live panning techniques, influenced such fringe six-stringers as Henry Kaiser, Vernon Reid, Elliott Sharp and Robert Quine. And while Cosey’s post-Hendrix onslaughts during this tumultuous electric-Miles period may have been the product of guitar effects technology, his uniquely expansive vision for the instrument was set in place years earlier, as a teenager growing up in Phoenix.

“I began experimenting with guitar sounds around 1961-62,” he explains. “I’d go up to South Mountain in the daytime with my guitar and a little amp and I’d plug into one of the auxiliary plugs there. That sound would just ring all through the mountains, and that really got me thinking about throwing sound out in a certain way so that it hit an arc. Playing in the mountains helped me to develop a wide-open sound.”

He discovered feedback around the same time. “I was playing an outdoor gig at the park,” Cosey recalls, “and at some point I must have leaned too near the amp because I got all this horrible noise. And I remember thinking to myself, Yeah!”

In recent years, Cosey has championed Miles’ electrified music. On May 23, 2001, he performed at the “Wall-to-Wall Miles” show at New York’s Symphony Space with bassist Melvin Gibbs’ Liberation Theology. The following year, on June 21, 2002, he came into New York’s Village Underground with his explosive Children of Agharta band, featuring Miles alumni John Stubblefield on tenor sax and Gary Bartz on alto sax, along with drummer JT Lewis.

Cosey’s connection to that electric Miles legacy continues in two upcoming releases. Miles-ologist Bob Belden and fellow reissue producer Michael Cuscuna have put together a six-CD set for Columbia/Legacy called Beyond The Corner, which includes studio sessions recorded from 1972 to 1974 that feature Cosey on several tracks, including “Big Fun,” “Calypso Frelimo,” “Holly-wuud,” the extended, dirge-like “He Loved Him Madly” and a few other previously unissued, untitled tracks.

Belden also produced Miles in India, which explores the trumpeter’s affinity for Indian music as heard on 1972’s On the Corner and 1974’s Get Up With It, both featuring Khalil Balakrishna on sitar and Badal Roy on tablas. For this Times Square Records release, Cosey plays alongside his former Agharta bandmates Michael Henderson on bass and Dave Liebman on saxes, along with Miles alumni Roy on tablas, Adam Holzman on keyboards and several Indian classical musicians, unleashing on classic ’70s Miles fare like “It’s About That Time,” “Mtume,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Great Expectations.”

Cosey can also be heard on a 2007 release by bassist-producer Bill Laswell, Method of Defiance: Inamorata. He plays on two tracks: “Hidden Killer,” with trumpeter Graham Haynes, and “Amenta,” with saxophonist Byard Lancaster.

“I’ve just gotten further out there with my playing these days,” says the godfather of guitar catharsis. “I’ve got some new instruments and those are always inspiring new sounds.”

Originally Published