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Playing With Fire

Pete Cosey/ In a Silent Way

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Playing With Fire

Guitarist Pete Cosey's first rehearsal with Miles Davis took place in a Portland hotel room in 1973. Davis would play a bit of a recording of the band's performance the night before in Calgary, and Cosey would listen enough to get the gist of it, ask Davis what key it was in, and then move on to the next part. Cosey had only met Davis briefly before joining the band, and as the men listened to the tape, they made small talk, began to know one another. At one point the conversation turned to food. The legendary trumpeter insisted that fish was all he ate, and it just so happened that Cosey was fresh off the plane from Chicago with a batch of red snapper and perch sandwiches he'd prepared a day earlier. Cosey scampered off to his room to get some for Davis, who took a bite and then asked what he was eating.

"I said, 'Red snapper,'" recalled Cosey on a recent afternoon at his garden apartment on Chicago's south side. But Davis croaked, "No it's not, it's chicken." After arguing for some time with Cosey and even calling in bassist Michael Henderson for his opinion, Davis finally sighed. "Well, I don't know what it is," he said, "but it's gooder than a motherfucker."

In hindsight, it seems Davis approached his food much the same way he did his music: no matter how anyone criticized or pigeonholed his work, he followed his own gut. While his classic recordings with Charlie Parker and the quintets he led stand as some of the most enduring and influential jazz ever recorded, by the early 70s Davis had busted the music wide open with his lean and gritty fusion of jazz improvisation and hard-rock rhythms--much to the dismay of the head-scratching jazz establishment and reactionary critics. Last month Columbia reissued five double CDs of live recordings made by Davis and his band between 1970 and 1974, and they demonstrate just how prophetic his vision was. More than two decades later his nonchalant scrambling of styles, his sophisticated rhythmic ideas, and his surging, nonlinear structures--once considered radically extreme--are commonplace in electronica, experimental jazz, and rock. Prior to the six-year hiatus Davis began in 1975, the band he was leading may have expressed the pure rhythmic joy and dazzling ebb-and-flow dynamics of his music better than any other, and one of that group's crucial components was Pete Cosey.

Cosey's searing, wah-wahing psychedelic leads on 1974's Dark Magus (as well as on already available gems Agharta and Pangaea) sound like the bastard spawn of Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel and free-jazz string mangler Sonny Sharrock. Cosey says he employs over 30 distinct musical "systems," including some based on modes and Indian ragas. His work with Davis actually represents but a sliver of the guitarist's range, but Cosey's own labyrinthine career mirrors Davis's disregard for jazz orthodoxy.

"My music has always been all-inclusive," says Cosey. "That's what my father taught me." Antonio Maceo Cosey was a versatile musician who worked with popular Chicago bandleader Red Saunders and wrote the Louis Jordan hit "The Ration Blues" with Cosey's mother, Collenane. Cosey was born in Chicago, but when he was a teenager his family moved to Phoenix, which he hated. "I always tell people I 'did' ten years out there," he says.

After he made his way back, in 1965, he started making up for lost time: A partial list of the blues, soul, and rock heavies he played with includes Chuck Berry, Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass, the Soul Stirrers, Jerry Butler, the Dells, Etta James, and the Rotary Connection. He can be heard on popular recordings by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He helped found both the Pharaohs and Earth, Wind and Fire and was an early member of the AACM, playing in a trio with organist Amina Claudine Myers and drummer Ajaramu and in Group For, a quartet with late saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer and bassist Don Moye and Malachi Favors. He spent several years as the guitarist in the Gene Ammons Trio, and was a longtime member of Phil Cohran's Artistic Heritage Ensemble. At one point, he was jobbing in Chess Records' house band by day and jamming with Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Big Band by night.

"There was a great division in those days, I'm sorry to say," says Cosey. "The blues people and the jazz people did not get along. I don't know whether it was jealousy or not, but it wasn't like it is now where people have an appreciation for all styles of music." Cosey, who's also played rock at frat parties and country and western at dives in Phoenix, rarely imposes any sort of hierarchy on all his experience. It's clear from my conversation with him, however, that his affiliation with Miles Davis, which included some informal jamming during the trumpeter's six-year hiatus, was his most profound musical experience.

"I've never seen anyone better at utilizing the elements around him," says Cosey of Davis. "That music was about life. It dealt with cleansing. It dealt with rising and falling. It was extremely cerebral, but it was earthy at the same time. We were into creating moods, taking people through different experiences, and both projecting and receiving thoughts from the audience." Cosey says he hasn't played jazz standards for almost 24 years, since about the time he fully settled into Davis's group. "My head isn't there now. Miles was very encouraging--he told me that I wrote differently than anyone he'd heard."

For a guy whose histories come tumbling out in such vivid detail, Cosey is a little vague about what he's been doing more recently--and for someone fluent in so many musical languages, the lack of high-profile activity is rather astonishing. He played on Herbie Hancock's 1983 crossover hit Future Shock, and briefly replaced Bill Frisell as the guitarist in Power Tools (a trio with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson), but hasn't worked much as a sideman since he left Miles. And although he's performed as a leader, both here and in New York, mostly he says he's been busy with production and arranging work for "more commercial stuff," including some gospel, Latin, and R & B projects. (He's also been giving guitar lessons to legendary DJ Herb Kent.)

Cosey says he hopes to work with Gibbs again this year, and that a recording he made with trumpeter Billy Brimfield, saxophonist Carter Jefferson, and drummer Doni Hagen early this decade will see release soon. But though Hagen's current illness and Jefferson's death seem to have affected him deeply, hampering his efforts to put together a suitable working group, he appears unfazed by the reduced pace of his career. "I just go and woodshed," he says with a determined nod. "I disappear from the scene and come back with different stuff."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pete Cosey photo by Bruce Powell.

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