“He never played in standard tuning. He would tune to the way he wanted to play the chords—the way he wanted them to sound—because the different tunings make your approach quite different.” —Michael Henderson

Hallmarks of Cosey’s Style

Miles Davis went modal with his landmark 1959 release Kind of Blue. Based on the modal theories of composer and theorist George Russell, the music eschewed jazz’s traditional reliance on a never-ending succession of chord changes as the basis for improvisation. Instead, improvisers were given the freedom to explore and experiment within the context of a static mode or chord-scale.

Early modal compositions like Davis’ “So What” and John Coltrane’s “Impressions” still relied on a recognizable AABA form, but by the early ’70s, Davis’ music—inspired by musicians like Sly Stone and James Brown—sat on one groove, usually an ostinato bass line, which went on ad infinitum. “It was all vamps,” says David Liebman, who played sax with Miles during that time. “Miles had maybe a two-bar or four-bar riff, but it was really vamp music and soloing over the vamp.” During Pete Cosey’s tenure with Davis, it was not unusual for songs to go on for 20 minutes or more.

“He knew how to misuse pedals, too, like plugging the chord halfway in to get what we think of as Fuzz Factory-type sounds now.” —Henry Kaiser

Davis experimented with complex rhythmic theories at that time as well. He assigned different instruments grooves to play in unrelated time signatures. Those grooves linked up every X number of bars, depending on how the various time signatures cycled in relationship to each other, and created intense polyrhythms in the process. But the harmonic setting was loose and gave the improviser incredible freedom to flourish.

It was a setting well suited for a player like Cosey. With his background in the blues and jazz—as well as funk, free, and various world-music genres—he had the awareness and experience to create soaring, open-ended melodic conversations. “Pete’s role with Miles was to do whatever he felt like—whatever he felt like was perfect,” Melvin Gibbs says. “Miles cued the band and it became the Pete show for about a half an hour after that.”

But modal playing is a far cry from easy. Although making complex, moving chord changes is challenging (try playing “Giant Steps” at breakneck speed), developing themes and ideas—without aimlessly wandering—is daunting as well. Cosey’s genius was his ability to thrive in that environment. He developed complex themes and variations and was a master of tension and release. He didn’t ramble and he kept the listener engaged. To hear him in action, check out the version of “Ife” and “Prelude (Part I)” from Agharta.