R.I.P. Pete Cosey, Doc Watson


In an increasingly bad month for music lovers, we have lost two more beloved greats, guitarists of the highest caliber: folk/country icon Doc Watson and jazz/blues/soul/avant-garde legend Pete Cosey. Watson was a star, certainly; just as certainly, Cosey was not. But aficionados of their respective genres had the highest respect for them.

I am shamefully uninformed about the extensive discography of the (vastly) more famous of the two, Arthel "Doc" Watson (March 3, 1923 -- May 29, 2012), whose virtuoso country flat-picking style made him a legend not just in country music but among guitarists of many stripes. Rather than crib from Wikipedia, I'll just say that you can find the outline of his life there; here I'll stick to my impressions.

After three early '60s Folkways albums on which he shared the spotlight with a variety of artists, he switched to Vanguard and released a series of dazzling and varied LPs that, along with his many folk-festival appearances, established his reputation. Though -- especially on his earlier albums -- he could dazzle with speed, he was also consummately tasteful in his playing. One of the things I like about him is that he clearly loved the blues.

He was happy to share his knowledge.

Not only was he instrumentally gifted, he was a good singer with an encyclopedic knowledge of old-time folk songs.

We've lost a major link to our musical heritage.

I have much more to say about the lesser-known Pete Cosey (October 9, 1940--May 30, 2012), even though he was far less prolific and never even released an album under his own name. He gained national notice as a sideman on some of Chess/Cadet Records' more progressive recordings, outraging blues fans in the process. Marshall Chess, son of the founder, wanted to update the sound of some of the label's biggest artists, and produced LPs for Muddy Waters (Electric Mud, and then After the Rain) and Howlin' Wolf (This is Howlin' Wolf's New Album) full of psychedelic versions of their signature songs.

Cosey's fuzz-guitar stylings were integral to this new sound, which, rejected in its time, has since earned respect. Other notable Cosey sideman credits in the '60s came on the first Rotary Connection album in 1967 (their most psychedelic LP, from before singer Minnie Riperton was made the focus) and Melvin Jackson's psych-funk classic Funky Skull; he could be heard on some Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, and Etta James material as well.

Cosey was also, at this time, a member of Phil Cohran's Artistic Heritage Ensemble, and he can be heard playing some distinctly down-home, non-psychedelic blues guitar on "Malcolm Little," the opening track of that group's The Malcolm X Memorial. He's also featured on the AHE's On the Beach, Armageddon, and The Spanish Suite. (Cosey was also, for a while, a member of the even more obscure -- but equally fabled among cognoscenti -- Chicago space-jazz-funk band The Pharoahs, whose recordings are so rare that they have to be tracked down illicitly online; they evolved out of Cohran's group and, without Cosey, further evolved to become Earth, Wind & Fire.)

In 1973 Cosey made the move he's most famous for, joining Miles Davis's band, staying until it broke up in 1975 when poor health forced Davis into a half-decade hiatus. Cosey is on the Davis albums Get Up with It, Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea (the latter three all recorded "live"), along with the July 8, 1973 concert that fills the first two discs of the Davis box set Live at Montreux (there are also many concert bootlegs from that period). Agharta in particular will melt your brain; if you don't own it, you have a gaping hole not just in your music collection, but in your life. Even when he's not soloing, Cosey is unleashing amazing sounds that support/prod the other musicians, creating the tracks' distinctive moods.

Guitarist Joe Morris writes of Cosey and this video, "One of the greatest ever. I saw him a few times with this Miles band in the '70s. We were all in awe of him back then. It's so amazing to watch this video and to be reminded of that music and the raw power of that band. Pete Cosey took that to the deepest place it could go to. The way he used sound was unlike anyone before or since. His playing was on the highest level that existed back then and a lot of what he did wasn't expanded on by later players. But I have never forgotten how enormous it was."

After his time with Davis, Cosey worked less, mostly staying in Chicago. When Bill Laswell produced Herbie Hancock's 1983 album Future Shock, he used Cosey for a solo on the title track, and there's an anomalous appearance on bass for one track on bluesman Billy Boy Arnold's 1993 comeback album. Aside from those credits and a 1987 Knitting Factory gig where he replaced Bill Frisell in the trio Power Tools, nothing of his from those decades has been released. 

Starting in 2000, he became more active, or at least his activities saw the light more often: sideman on a Laswell-produced album by Japanese avant-jazz saxophonist Akira Sakata, Fisherman's.com; the Cosey-led group The Children of Agharta; soloist on the Burnt Sugar album Rites; five tracks on the 2008 Davis tribute album Miles from India; and three tracks on Ancients Speak, the 2009 CD by Melvin Gibbs' Elevated Entity.

Gibbs told me, "Pete's playing is the musical equivalent of sage wisdom. It's aphoristic, it's dialectic. It's a virtuoso exploration of the dualities that always inform African-American creativity: compassion and confrontation, peace and violence, erudite intellectuality and street smart insight."

For more on Cosey's life (especially his time with Davis), in his own words, there's this interview.  - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.