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Building Bridges With an Ax

Pete Cosey/Plugged In Again

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Pete Cosey has kept a low profile for most of his four-decade career. In fact, in the past ten years it seemed as though the guitarist had vanished completely. "I just go and woodshed," the former Miles Davis sideman told me in 1997. "I disappear from the scene and come back with different stuff." Recently he's come back with several new projects: he's a member of the Electric Mudcats, a Muddy Waters-inspired act organized by Public Enemy's Chuck D; he's the featured soloist on a disc that reinterprets Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps; and he's formed the Children of Agartha, a band with Davis alums Gary Bartz and John Stubblefield that pays homage to the hard-charging, nonlinear music that Cosey made with the trumpeter in the mid-70s. And recently he got an unexpected dose of mainstream exposure: he appeared as a plaintiff on The People's Court.

Last June, Children of Agartha made their debut at the Village Underground in New York. At the end of the night the club's talent buyer, Steve Weitzman, didn't have enough cash on hand to meet the band's guarantee; Cosey agreed to let him pay the balance of $1350 by August 15. When the date came and went without payment, Cosey filed a suit in New York small-claims court. But before the November court date rolled around he was contacted by representatives of the TV program. Both he and Weitzman agreed to appear; the episode was taped late last fall and ran early this year. Cosey presented the facts, the original contract, and Weitzman's promissory note. After some backpedaling from the promoter, the judge ruled in the guitarist's favor.

As Cosey nears 70 quite a few judgments have gone his way. He made significant contributions to some of the most critically maligned records of the late 60s and early 70s; contemporary critics and musicians have reevaluated those albums and Cosey's performances. "It's not so much people catching up to what I'm doing as it's a matter of rediscovery, or, for some of them, discovery," he says. "My music is light-years from that right now. I'm interested in bridges, not barriers. A lot of the young people aren't familiar with many of our great jazz artists nor our great blues artists, so if we can introduce them through our music that'll be beneficial for everyone."

In 1968 Cosey laid down his trademark swirl of dense wahwah filigree on Electric Mud, Muddy Waters's notorious psychedelic blues record. In its day the record invoked the wrath of blues purists, but today many artists have a different view. In Can't Be Satisfied, Robert Gordon's recent Waters biography, Chuck D says, "To me it's a brilliant record. It took me a while to warm up to traditional blues. A whole new world. But the automatic thing that struck me right away was the Electric Mud thing."

The album meant so much to the rapper that in 2001 he reconvened the surviving musicians from the Mud sessions--Cosey, saxophonist Gene Barge, guitarist Phil Upchurch, bassist Louis Satterfield, and drummer Morris Jennings--added DJ Johnny Juice, and dubbed them the Electric Mudcats. They're featured prominently in Godfathers and Sons, a film by Marc Levin that will air this fall as part of Martin Scorsese's seven-part PBS documentary series "The Blues." (Hip-hop stars like Chuck D, Common, and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots perform with them in the film.) An underrehearsed version of the Electric Mudcats performed on the opening night of the recent Chicago Blues Festival, and only Cosey's searing, texturally rich solo on an intense reinterpretation of "Mannish Boy" saved the set from being a run-of-the-mill blues blowing session.

On the Stravinsky recording, conducted by Lawrence "Butch" Morris, Cosey played with Burnt Sugar, the funky New York outfit led by Greg Tate, a Village Voice cultural critic and author of the new Afrocentric treatise Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience. It was Tate's writing that helped instigate the critical reassessment of Davis's electric band. "I probably know that music as well as anybody knows anything," Tate says. "I spent a lot of my adolescence listening to those things over and over again, and I had an opportunity to see the band when Pete was in it in D.C., around 1974. The music was so debased and lambasted for decades, and just in terms of the way that aesthetics have evolved--the use of electronics in improvisational situations, technology changing the way music is made--Miles is still ahead of the curve."

Tate met Cosey in the early 80s, when the guitarist was in New York to guest on Herbie Hancock's crossover hit Future Shock; Cosey subsequently played briefly in Power Tools, the trio led by future Living Colour bassist Melvin Gibbs, an early member of the Black Rock Coalition, the organization started by Tate and guitarist Vernon Reid in 1985 to draw attention to African-American pop and rock musicians. Tate and Cosey maintained a loose correspondence over the years, and when Burnt Sugar made its Chicago debut in the summer of 2001 Cosey came out to hear them at the Empty Bottle. "Afterward he said there were a couple of times when he wanted to jump onstage, but he didn't know the format," recalls Tate. "I said, 'Man, you are the format. You're one of the reasons this band exists.' He's the guy who, after Hendrix, showed how out you could go with guitar playing, particularly in the improvised context."

Burnt Sugar, a group with a sprawling, ever changing lineup, mixes funk, soul, rock, electronica, hip-hop, and electric jazz without ever resorting to self-conscious pastiche. Like Davis's electric work, their music ebbs and flows organically, bristling with multilevel detail. "I was delighted by them," says Cosey. "I enjoyed the concept, the togetherness, the sound, and I told him anything I could do to help, just let me know." Tate took him up on the offer last fall, when Cosey was in New York to participate in the annual Great Night in Harlem concert at the Apollo Theater with Children of Agartha. (Burnt Sugar also features Gibbs, Johnny Juice, drummer J.T. Lewis, and MC Baba Israel.) On the album they recorded--which incorporates various motifs from, rather than following, the Stravinsky score--Cosey's generous sustain, liquid phrasing, and psychedelic tone contribute to the overlapping textures.

Since 2000, when he recorded an album with the Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata--Fisherman's.com, which also features bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Hamid Drake--Cosey has made numerous trips to New York for live gigs and recording dates. He's gone into the studio with DJ Logic and the trio Harriet Tubman, although nothing has yet been released. "Now it looks like it's finally the time," he says. "You can beat your head against the wall and get shut out, or you can bide your time, eke out a living...and then when the cycle comes along again, when those windows and doors of opportunity open up, the key to it is being ready--have your material ready, have your people ready. And that's what I've tried to do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre Jackson.

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