Since I missed the chance to post something nice for John Coltrane’s birthday on Tuesday, let’s take the opportunity to look at maybe his greatest album, and certainly his most famous one, Giant Steps (recorded 1959, released 1960).
It’s fair to put Giant Steps up there alongside any album in jazz history in terms of quality, virtuosity, impact, just about any measure you want to use. It’s a true masterpiece that has influenced jazz artists ever since. The title number locks in everything that Coltrane had been experimenting with in his sessions with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and under his own name: the hyperspeed “sheets of sound” improvisational style that allowed him to deconstruct chords and put them back together in new ways, and his chord substitution method that became known as “Coltrane changes.” Coltrane would take a standard jazz chord progression (the “ii-V-I turnaround,” for anybody who knows a little jazz theory) and substitute several much quicker harmonically-related chord changes in place of the three chords used in the traditional progression. Don’t ask me to explain this because I really can’t, but the effect is astonishing. I’m not sure anybody who listens to this album will come away hearing exactly the same thing as anybody else.
Aside from the musical innovations, the album is also noteworthy for being one of a number of important albums recorded around this time that really put the emphasis of the music on the improvised solos rather than on the melody of the tune. Where traditionally the solos were meant to accent and highlight the tune, here the tune is just a vehicle to get you to the solos. That’s a trend that has definitely continued all the way to the present day.
Aside from Coltrane, Giant Steps features Tommy Flanagan on piano (Wynton Kelly on “Naima”), Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums (Jimmy Cobb on “Naima”). Most of the album was recorded only a couple of weeks after Coltrane had worked on Kind of Blue, which, man, talk about an abrupt change in style. “Naima” was recorded later than the rest of the album, when Kelly and Cobb (who along with Chambers were in Davis’s rhythm section at the time) were available, so Coltrane used them on that track. Here are some tunes:
The title track, one of the greatest and most important tunes in the history of jazz:
“Cousin Mary,” named for, shockingly, Coltrane’s cousin, Mary. He described her as an “earthy, folksy, swinging person,” which the tune captures pretty well:
“Countdown,” another frenetic test for Coltrane’s amazing technical proficiency:
Coltrane wrote “Syeeda’s Song Flute” for his daughter, written, in his words, to be “a happy, child’s song”:
“Naima,” a gorgeous ballad named for Coltrane’s wife, that showcases his ability to handle the slow stuff as well:
“Mr. PC,” an uptempo blues named in honor of bassist Chambers:
Missing here is “Spiral,” which you should also go check out.