Monday, June 14, 2010

Heroic Guitarists, Part 1: Pete Cosey

The popularity of video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero reveal our culture's ultimate secret fantasy: to be greatest musician ever to thoroughly rock Jeremy's mom's rec room. Most wannabes, though, will never pass into the stratocastosphere through speedy button-pressing; guitars are easy to play (sort of, with practice), but hard to play very well. The great guitar heroes are knighted for their speed, dexterity, riffage, soloing, and other sonic tricks, but the list of incredible guitarists who also happen to incredible singers or songwriters is pretty small. So the most famous guitarists are generally ones who sing or write as well. But some of my very favorite guitarists are sidemen, content to sit at the sidelines squeezing beautiful noise out of their guitars.

One of my favorite relatively unknown guitarists is an intergalactic supergenius known as Pete Cosey. His recorded output is pretty small—he is mostly known for backing Miles Davis from 1973 until Miles semi-retired from music in 1975. If you like classic jazz (and you should), you might have some trouble digesting this particular musical feast, as it bears little resemblance to Kind Of Blue or even A Love Supreme. This is noisy, dark funk, with long elastic tempos, knotty distorted solos, and lots of wah-wah. Miles' inspirations around this time were Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, all of whom haunt this era: you can hear their militant rhythms and the oceans of noise made possible by amplified instruments. Cosey was just one of Miles' guitarists—sometimes he had as many as three onstage—but he was the best. Photos from the era show a man in dark glasses with a long beard, usually seated and looking like some kind of wizard musician in elaborate robes (cf. Rick Rubin). His role was, apparently, to fight dragons and control the weather with his guitar, and he does. Jimi Hendrix is the closest comparison, but where Hendrix was a massive continent of sound, a magma sculptor, Cosey is lighter and more ethereal, though still very noisy; his guitar sounds like what I imagine purified electricity would sound like.

You can find his work on most of the albums Miles Davis recorded between 1973 and 1975. So head on down to Get Up with It, Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea (the latter three being live albums), or the box set The Complete On the Corner Sessions, and kiss the sky.

Here's "Turnaroundphrase", recorded live in Tokyo in 1975; at around 1:55, Cosey seems to plug his guitar into a lightning bolt:

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