Welcome to Feature Fridays! Each week music library staff highlight an item from our collection. While the music library is closed, we will feature items that are available for streaming. This week Music Library Assistant Ryan Jacobs reviews Giant Steps, by John Coltrane.
The legendary saxophonist John Coltrane’s quintessential album Giant Steps celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020, and is the first album composed entirely of Coltrane originals.The album features John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. One of the most influential jazz records of all time, several tracks on the album have since become standards, widely known, and performed compositions considered important in the jazz repertoire.
Coltrane recorded another seminal jazz album, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (read our review of Kind of Blue here) mere weeks prior, to which this album is the harmonic antithesis. In contrast with the pioneering composition techniques of Davis’ Kind of Blue, which sought a new harmonic language and solidified the modal jazz framework, Giant Steps was a step beyond the existing jazz vernacular. The blistering solos and dense chord changes that would become the basis of Coltrane’s signature energetic style.
The album begins with the titular track, which has been simultaneously feared and beloved by jazz musicians ever since. The “Giant Steps” progression has been analyzed countless times, so I won’t go into too much technical detail here. To put it simply, the piece includes a chord progression that rapidly spans three key signatures. A study in third-related chord movement, the complexity of these patterns (known as Coltrane changes) combined with the frenetic tempo have canonized this piece as a rite of passage jazz improvisation. This piece also emphasizes Coltrane’s soloing style which has been described as a “sheet of sound”, consisting of extremely high-speed scale patterns and arpeggios with a fluid sweeping technique that ends up sounding more like a smooth glissando than a series of discrete notes.
This soloing style appears throughout the album, such as on the next track, “Cousin Mary” (dedicated to Coltrane’s cousin). This piece, alongside the last track “Mr. P.C.” (named after Paul Chambers) belongs to the blues idiom. To quickly highlight the remaining tracks on the album, “Countdown” is a contrafact of Eddie Vinson’s “Tune Up,” “Spiral” features a chromatically descending harmonic motif, “Syeeda’s Flute Song” is an exotic, bouncy tune named after Coltrane’s adopted daughter, and “Naima” (which features Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums, both of whom also played on Kind of Blue alongside Coltrane and Chambers) can be considered a ballad or a tone poem with rich chords over a bass pedal point, and is named after Coltrane’s wife at the time. Since the release of the album, “Giant Steps”, “Countdown”, “Naima”, and “Mr. P.C.” have all become jazz standards.
Giant Steps is available from Naxos Jazz with your AU credentials. You can also stream other Coltrane albums from Naxos Jazz, including this compilation of four classic albums (Blue Train, John Coltrane Plays the Blues, Africa/Brass, and Olé).