Giant Steps into the 21st Century

Enough energy to power a spaceship

One of the greatest talents among many great talents on Miles Davis‘s seminal album Kind of Blue was tenor man John Coltrane and he also produced an outstanding album which broke new jazz ground in1959: Giant Steps .

Trane” as he was affectionately called, came from Hamlet in North Carolina, where he was born in September 1926. He moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and joined the US Navy in 1945. He played in a Navy band in Hawaii for about a year. He played with Davis from 1955 to 1957, with Thelonius Monk in the later part of 1957 before rejoining Davis in January 1958.

The stint with Monk was critically important for Coltrane as playing with Monk encouraged him to play more riskily, with higher levels of alertness to what was going on around him musically: “I learned new levels of alertness with Monk,” Coltrane told writer Nat Hentoff. “If you didn’t keep aware of what was going on, you were lost.”

It was also during this time with Monk that Coltrane developed the style which critic Ira Gitler would dub “sheets of sound” to describe how Trane would fit many, many notes into each bar, each phrase.

Monk also started Coltrane off on his habit of playing long, long solos.The anecdote about Davis asking Trane why he didn’t stop a solo is indicative. Trane said he didn’t know how to end the solo. “Take the mouthpiece out of your mouth,” said Davis.

Hentoff records how one of Trane’s solos could last an hour. Few other tenor players could keep up the physical demands of such long solos, never mind the ability to produce fresh ideas and sounds over such extended periods. As Gitler remarked: “His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me. It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Also while with Monk Trane began to explore the limits of music in terms of both rhythm and harmony. With his only album as leader for Blue Note Records, the 1957 release Blue Train , he introduced into jazz the so-called “Coltrane changes” as two of the numbers on the album used this technique, namely “Moments Notice” and “Lazy Bird.” This technique of chord substitution would be a major feature of the Giant Steps album two years later.

The recording sessions

Giant Steps is the first album to contain only compositions by Coltrane and no standards, though five of the original seven tracks could be considered to have become standards by now, i.e. “Giant Steps”, “Naima”, “Cousin Mary”, “Countdown” and “Mr P.C.”

The album was recorded in four sessions on 26 March, 4 May and 5 May, and the final session on 2 December 1959. The personnel on each session was slightly different with Paul Chambers on bass the only constant beside Coltrane. In the original version of the album the takes from 26 March were not released, and were only released as alternative takes on the later re-releases in 1974 (the album Alternate Takes , Atlantic) and the 1995 Rhino release John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion, The Complete Atlantic Recordings .

In this Hub I will only be discussing the tracks from the original release. I will also not go into technical detail about the “Coltrane changes” – maybe the subject for another Hub?

The Atlantic album was produced by famed Turkish producer and Atlantic executive Nesuhi Ertegun.

The tracks in order

Track 1: Giant Steps

Animated sheet music for “Giant Steps”

The first track is “Giant Steps”, recorded on 5 May 1959 with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums.

The composition is based on a cycle of major thirds from B (it starts with a B triad) through G to E flat. According to some writers Coltrane was interested in this form by the bridge in the Richard Rodgers song “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Whatever, it is a medium tempo romp with wonderful solos first from Trane, followed by Flanagan in a relatively short one.

The next track is “Cousin Mary” recorded in the same session. Longish solo by Trane followed again by Flanagan for a few choruses and then a typically eloquent bass solo by Chambers before Trane comes back to wrap it all up.

The next track is “Countdown” which is based on a harmonic inversion of Davis’s tune “Tune Up” and is rich in “Coltrane Changes.” It is a fast, swinging number which starts with a drum intro which, after a few bars, Coltrane makes into a drum and tenor duet for a few more bars before the bass and piano come in to take the number into a swinging conclusion.

The track entitled “Spiral” is a medium tempo number recorded on 4 May, as was “Countdown.” Again the first solo isTrane’s, followed by Flanagan and Chambers, before Trane re-enters to put a seal on it.

“Syeeda’s Song Flute” is a happy medium tempo composition inspired byTrane’s then 10-year-old daughter. A very accessible jazz tune.Flanagan takes a long, happy-sounding solo, with some wonderful basslines from Chambers, who has his own also longish turn after a chorus or two, and before Trane comes back to round it off.

Track 6 is the gentle, beautiful “Naima”, named for Coltrane’s first wife. Hentoff, in the original liner notes wrote: “There is a ‘cry’ – not at all necessarily a despairing one – in the work of the best of the jazz players. It represents a man’s being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out, and that ‘cry’ Coltrane certainly has.”

Naima was recorded in the 2 December session with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The piece is a quiet rumination in complete contrast to the next number,”Mr. P.C.” which was recorded in the 5 May session. This is an up-tempo tribute to Paul Chambers, of whom Trane is quoted by Hentoff as saying: “I feel very fortunate to have had him on this date and to have been able to work with him in Miles’ band so long.”

Flanagan has a long, sprightly solo before Trane and Art Taylor have a session of trading fours and then Trane re-introduces the theme to bring the proceedings to an exciting end.

Conclusion – the legacy of the album

Of the many great jazz albums recorded in 1959 this is one of the most interesting and certainly has been long regarded by jazz musicians as the “gold standard” in improvisation, both in terms of the beauty of the results and in terms of the technical demands the music makes on the soloist.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Happy birthday, Saint John!

Portrain of John Coltrane (2007) BY Paolo Steffan. Image via Wikipedia

Many jazz musicians have been devoutly religious, but only one has been canonised – Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane, who would have turned 85 on 23 September 2011.

The influential tenor player was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in middle class circumstances into a family with deep religious roots.

He started playing other instruments, especially alto, only gravitating to the tenor sax after playing alto with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band until that broke up. After that Coltrane stayed with Gillespie’s small group and took up tenor.

One of the big breaks in his career came in 1955 when he was called by Miles Davis to join the trumpeter’s famous “First Great Quintet” in the place vacated by Sonny Rollins. Miles at that time was exploring modal scales which had a great impact on Coltrane. Valerie Wilmer in her book about the “New Music” As Serious as Your Life (Serpent’s Tail,1992) wrote that Coltrane had said “…he used to listen to Miles Davis on record and fantasise about playing tenor the way he played trumpet.”

Coltrane was with the Davis group until November 1956 when he rather abruptly left it. He was by this time being badly affected by heavy drinking and his addiction to heroin. In his biography of Davis (Paladin, 1984) Ian Carr writes “Miles may have tried to jolt the saxophonist from time to time to sting him into revolting against the inexorable progress of his destructive habit.” Whatever the reason or process of his leaving the Davis band Coltrane went home to Philadelphia where he managed to clean himself up, kicking the heroin habit cold turkey and having a kind of spiritual awakening with the support of his first wife Naima.

In the liner notes to his great album, A Love Supreme, Coltrane wrote about this episode:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

In early 1957 Coltrane was offered a recording contract by Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records which led to the saxophonist’s first recording date as a leader. Recorded at the end of May 1957 it was released as Coltrane in 1957.

Coltrane’s second solo album was Blue Train issued by Blue Note records in 1957 which featured four of Coltrane’s own compositions and one standard.

By January 1958 Coltrane was back with Davis after a six-month stint with the Thelonius Monk Quartet which produced two outstanding albums: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and an outstanding date at Carnegie Hall, the recording of which was only discovered serendipitously in 2005 and released as Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Of great interest in the first of these albums is the contrast between an earlier influential tenor player, Coleman Hawkins, who plays on two of the tracks, and his younger counterpart Coltrane.

Wilmer wrote about Coltrane’s technique and musicianship: “Coltrane rewrote the method book for the saxophone, just as Charlie Parker had done twenty years earlier and Coleman Hawkins twenty years before that.”

In 1959 Coltrane was an influential part of the Davis group which made the seminal Kind of Blue album which has become something of a jazz classic, very possibly the top selling jazz album of all time. This session confirmed Coltrane’s interest in modal jazz and set him off on his explorations of other musics, especially African and Indian.

Shortly after completing the Kind of Blue recording was Davis, Coltrane was again in studio as leader to record the first album consisting entirely of his own compositions, Giant Steps, a breakthrough album which showed to the full his playing style dubbed “sheets of sound” by critic Ira Gitler. The complex chord sequences of the title track have been called “Coltrane changes”.

By the time of his recording of the album My Favorite Things in 1961 Coltrane was heavily into his exploratory phase, in part as a result of meeting and studying with famed sitar player Ravi Shankar. Coltrane used a soprano sax on this recording for the first time.

After some personnel changes the so-called “Classic Quartet” was in place by 1962. This group consisted of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison with Elvin Jones on drums.

The Classic Quartet produced increasingly inventive albums, including what is considered by most to be Coltrane’s greatest, A Love Supreme. This 1964 album indicated the increasingly spiritual direction Coltrane was taking. In the liner notes of the 1995 re-release Michael Cuscuna, prolific producer and discographer, wrote: “A Love Supreme is one of the most honest musical performances put to tape. Its beauty and appeal are timeless.”

A Love Supreme has gone on to influence many generations of musicians and fans, in a way as Kind of Blue has done, who would not normally be associated with jazz.

By the time Coltrane died in July 1967 he was a legend with a huge number of high quality recordings to his name. Valerie Wilmer wrote, “In addition to his musical importance, Coltrane exerted a profound spiritual influence on the musicians who followed in his footsteps.”

Icon of St John Will-I-Am Coltrane. Image via Wikipedia

“What he did through his own example, was to give not only the musicians but the Black community as a whole, an example by which they could live,” Wilmer continued. Which is why, perhaps, he was canonised by the African Orthodox Church back in the early 1980s.

As the founder of the St John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church in San Francisco, Franzo Wayne King, said in a sermon reported by the New York Times in 2007: “The kind of music you listen to is the person you become. When you listen to John Coltrane, you become a disciple of the anointed of God.”

I do wonder what Coltrane himself would think of this, seeing that he was determinedly non-denominational?

But the influence for positive, good values is clear.

Coltrane said in 1966: “I hope whoever is out there listening, they enjoy it.” Thank you, St John, we do!