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Elliott Sharp Remembers Pete Cosey

Oct. 9, 1943-May 30, 2012

Elliott Sharp
Pete Cosey

The search for hot guitar and cool licks took up an inordinate part of my teen years. An incendiary lead break with that elusive WTF?! factor might be found on odd sides, rescuing songs otherwise destined for the audio dustbin. When Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds inhabited the Top 40 the quest became easier, especially with the Isley Brothers, Mitch Ryder, the Temptations and Rotary Connection joining them on the air.

The Connection was an industry construction featuring diva Minnie Riperton, but their main attraction for me was the massive guitar of Pete Cosey, who played searing blues licks with a psychedelic dimension. Pete’s lines were unpredictable and larger than terrestrial life, clearly aligned with the Hendrix wing of the blues party but with a unique personal twist. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were perennial favorites, and when Chess released the notorious The Howlin’ Wolf Album and Electric Mud I ran out to get them. The purist in me hated the “groovy” veneer, but that part of my soul that craved sonic extremes was thrilled at the wah-wah vocalizations and sneering fuzz of Cosey’s leads, not to mention his sitar. The Wolf record provided one of my favorite quotes of the era, also courtesy of Cosey: “Howlin’ Wolf looked at me and he said, ‘Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake-on your way to the barbershop?'”

I began to search for Cosey’s playing and found it in such unlikely places as John Klemmer’s Blowin’ Gold, the soft-lite saxman’s funkiest album. He played many sessions but was often uncredited. When Cosey surfaced with Miles Davis in 1975 on Agharta, it promised apocalyptic joy. These expectations were more than met by his combination of bebop phrasing and ripping blues licks that were twisted, filtered and vocalized with fuzz, wah, echo and ring modulation.

Pete could be heard not only on guitar but with an EMS VCS3 synthesizer to further mangle his guitar or add atmospheric textures to an already exotic soundscape. My friends and I eagerly sought out copies of Miles’ impossible to obtain (in Buffalo, anyway) Pangaea and Black Magus, and cassettes were passed hand-to-hand. I felt that Cosey was bridging two seemingly mutually exclusive worlds: the rarefied laboratories of Stockhausen and Xenakis and the Southside Chicago blues of Muddy and Wolf. In his hands there was no gulf between these realms: Cosey translated all of his sounds through his own sonic vision, one with the times and filled with the rhythm of the streets. One may see the parallel with such a visionary artist as Sun Ra: earthy and out of the blues but at home in the cosmos, conversing freely in alien languages.

I met Pete Cosey only once, briefly. In 1987 he joined Power Tools with Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson, and they performed at the old Knitting Factory. Between sets I encountered Pete on the stairs and we spoke for a second about the Casio guitar synthesizer that he was using. He said it was “his orchestra.” He exuded intelligence and warmth, both qualities in abundance in his playing. Certainly he produced symphonic textures that night, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed in not hearing him shred a corner of the universe on his Strat or Morris Custom.

The news of his passing caught me by surprise, even though I had heard that he’d been ailing. I had been recording that day and was caught in the doldrums, unable to find a suitable strategy for completing a solo on a track I had built up. Calling a halt to work and holding a private memorial meditation for Pete Cosey, I searched for and watched a number of clips on the web. A stunner was Pete with Miles in Vienna, 1973, playing one of his uniquely tuned Vox 12-strings and making music so brilliant and incandescent that I was floored. Inspired, I was able to return to my task having asked the musical question, “What would Pete Cosey do?” and receiving a wealth of answers to choose from.

Originally Published