John Coltrane: Giant Steps
Born in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, John Coltrane was the son of an amateur musician who encouraged his son’s interest in music early on. The young Coltrane grew up listening to the recorded music of Count Basie and Lester Young and took up the saxophone at the age of 13. When he was 16, he moved to Philadelphia, a city with a rich jazz culture.
Back in those days, the lines between jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues were blurred, and Coltrane’s early professional experiences included stints with the bands of Earl Bostic and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, bands that exemplified that blurred distinction. On June 5, 1945, Coltrane was in the audience of Charlie Parker, and a whole new world opened up to him. In a 1960 DownBeat interview, Coltrane recalled: “The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.”
Before long, Coltrane would be playing in bands led by Jimmy Heath, by Dizzy Gillespie and by Johnny Hodges. And then, in 1955, he got a call from Miles Davis, inviting him to join a new band, the one that became known as Miles’s “first great quintet.” Another opportunity came along in 1957 when Coltrane was asked to join Thelonious Monk’s quartet at New York’s Five Spot, in which he played for five months before rejoining Miles.
There’s no doubt Coltrane absorbed all of his musical experiences as his musical journey took him from those days with Bostic and Vinson into bebop to post bop to tonal jazz and ultimately to free jazz. It was perhaps about midway in that journey, on May 5, 1959, that John Coltrane went into the recording studio to produce his first album for Atlantic Records, the first of his own compositions exclusively—a stunning album that stopped the jazz world in its tracks. The album, of course, was Giant Steps, and the track that most especially turned heads was the title track itself, a composition that jazz writer Doug Ramsey called “the harmonic steeplechase generally regarded as the most significant—at least the most prominent—milestone on the tenor saxophonist’s path out of bebop on his way to what he called a universal sound.” Indeed, “Giant Steps” is considered to display the most complex and difficult chord progression of any widely-played jazz composition. The technical achievement aside, there’s also a genuinely soulful, organic quality in the performance of the song that was always characteristic of Coltrane’s playing.
“Giant Steps” established a new standard for jazz musicians, demanding of them both a complex harmonic knowledge and technical facility beyond most of them at the time. It has been said, in fact, that this recording was the main reason Sonny Rollins temporarily stopped playing in public, as he re-examined his own musical thinking. And today, the music publisher Jamey Abersold continues to do a good business in the sale of Giant Steps: A Player's Guide To Coltrane's Harmony for ALL Instrumentalists.
The title track, while certainly the most notable on the album, is by no means the only one worth serious attention. The tune “Countdown,” for instance, provides a second example of the kind of harmonic architecture Coltrane employed in “Giant Steps,” the structure referred to now as “Coltrane changes.” “Naima,” the album’s ballad named for Coltrane’s wife (at the time), also has a harmonic similarity. Other songs from the album, many of them, like “Naima,” named for friends and relatives, have also proved enduring. They include “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” an engaging, almost-childlike melody named for his daughter; “Cousin Mary;” “Spiral;” and “Mr. P.C.,” named for bassist Paul Chambers.
The “main takes” on Giant Steps (tracks 1-5 plus 7) were recorded by John Coltrane, tenor sax; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Art Taylor, drums. The alternate take of “Giant Steps” (track 8) and “Naima” (track 9) used Cedar Walton and Lex Humphries on piano and drums respectively. Note that the album was recorded over a number of sessions, with some inconsistencies in the dates reported. There’s general agreement, though, that the main takes were recorded on the May 5, 1959 date.
The album Giant Steps is today a basic repertoire item, certainly for musicians, and, a staple in any serious jazz collection.
Note: If you haven’t seen this video of “Giant Steps” annotated, give yourself a treat right now. Click here.