Classic Music Review: Giant Steps by John Coltrane

On many occasions during my teens and early twenties, in search of opportunities to improve my limited guitar skills, I’d call a friend up and ask, “Hey, you wanna jam?” That friend would call another friend who knew this guy who was supposed to be a bad-ass guitar player and just happened to be in town staying with this other friend and the next thing you know I’d have ten fucking people in my living room with guitars and tambourines and maybe a bass if I was lucky.

You couldn’t really call these jam sessions. They were more “fuck around” sessions than real jamming. The group would assemble and then stare at each other with guitars in hands until someone suggested a song that everyone probably knew and could follow with relative ease.

“Hey, what about ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger?’” someone might suggest. In the context of a fuck around, there is only one possible response to that offer. “What are the chords?”

“C, G, Am, E7, F, G for the main. Then there’s an F/Fminor kinda thing on the bridge with a D-note on the Fminor.”

“Okay, let’s give it a shot.”

The key interaction here is the response to a song title: “What are the chords?” With very few exceptions, rock music is based on chords, and since the chords to rock music are pretty standard fare (majors, minors, sevenths and an occasional ninth or diminished chord), most rock musicians know them and can follow along without having to look at a chart (which few of them could read anyway). Blues songs are usually three chords, a standard pop-rock song may have five to eight if the bridge is interesting. The Beatles at their peak and some of the more progressive rock groups added a bit more complexity, but the most rock songs are cut from the same simple fiber. The Oasis song mentioned above has seven or eight chords, and all are very familiar to most homegrown musicians.

I often watched these interactions from an anthropological perspective, fascinated by the development of cultural norms and expectations. Being a wicked little bitch, I always had the fantasy that someday it would be my turn to pick a song and I’d say, “How about ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane?”

“What are the chords?” 

“Well, the intro is Bmaj7, D7, Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, then Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, Gmaj7, C#m9, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, C#m7, F#7. The first section of the solo follows the pattern B, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Gb7, B, Fm7, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, C#m7, F#7, B, Fm7, then back to Bb7, Eb, C#m7, F#7. That’s the first thirty seconds or so. I’ll sing scat for the melody, you guys just follow along, and once we get that down, we’ll do the rest of the song. Ready?”

Once the silence died, maybe one person trying to save face might say, “Am7—isn’t that the ‘Rocky Raccoon’ chord?” The rest would sit there frozen for another minute, then the smart-ass in the crowd would call my bluff and say, “Can you show me on your guitar?”

“Fuck, no!” I’d have to admit. That’s because “Giant Steps” is played at 260-300 beats per minute, depending on which take you use as your model. Standard rock hovers around 120 beats per minute; punk ramps it up to a range of 140-200 beats per minute. It would be a YouTube-worthy feat if a rhythm guitar player could play the chord changes of “Giant Steps” at 120 beats per minute; impossible at 300. On a good day, I might get to play those chords in sequence at 40 beats a minute if I had a good night’s sleep and my finger memory was in working order, but I’m someone who thought she was absolute hot shit when she finally played the rapid chord changes to the chorus in Tull’s “Sweet Dreams,” a pattern that consists of a grand total of five familiar chords. To a rock musician, a barrage of chords at that speed is unintelligible, like speaking Farsi to a Finn. There doesn’t even seem to be an intelligible pattern to them, and because many rock musicians don’t know much about music theory, the lack of a detectable pattern is disorienting.

It certainly wasn’t disorienting to Wynton Marsalis when he was asked about Giant Steps in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. A pretty exuberant guy, he really lit up when talking about Giant Steps. “When it came out, everybody wanted to play Giant Steps,” he exulted.

Modern jazz has been attacked as unintelligible gibberish, but it’s really just music in a different language. Americans have never been comfortable with foreign languages, a phenomenon that may explain why jazz has held its popularity in Europe, where people are used to dealing with different languages, while continuing to decline in popularity in the States. The great innovators of the post-swing era—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane—were constantly exploring new forms of musical expression because they felt restricted by the limits imposed by the standard structures of popular music. They wanted to push the boundaries of musical language. The problem was that when they removed the dance beat and Charlie and Dizzy started playing odd chords at a blistering pace, Americans started checking out of the jazz scene. For American kids weaned on Glenn Miller, they couldn’t see the point in making music that you couldn’t sing or dance to, so jazz began its inexorable decline into cultural irrelevance in the United States.

Coltrane was part of that movement. Coltrane’s journey through the jazz scene was more introverted, intense, personal and spiritual. He played with many of the great musicians of the period, but while respected by those musicians for his amazingly fluid, high-speed style, he never really came into his own until Giant Steps, the first album consisting entirely of Coltrane compositions. He’d been the leader (or featured soloist) on a few albums but still hadn’t found his voice . . . or as he would have said, he hadn’t solved “the musical problem.” To Coltrane, music was a universe of endless possibilities and mathematical problems awaiting solutions; at the same time, it was also the gateway to the eternal soul. This unusual combination of deep technical study and a lifelong personal Hejira in search of eternal truth (and ten hours of practice a day) makes John Coltrane a somewhat intimidating figure at first. His reputation and ascension into sainthood via the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church only adds to the distance. From the church’s website:

The ascension of St. John Coltrane into one-ness with God is what we refer to as the Risen Trane. In dealing with the Saint, John Coltrane, we are not dealing with St. John the man but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound. From the standpoint of the biography of John Coltrane, the Risen Trane is the post 1957 John Coltrane. He who emerged from drug addiction onto a path of spiritual awakening and who gave testimony of the power and empowerment of grace of God in his life and in his Psalm on A Love Supreme, and in his music thereafter. (“At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”) We, too, having been touched by this anointed sound and being called and chosen by the Holy Ghost, endeavor to carry the holy ambition and mantle of sound baptism of St. John Coltrane.

We are fully aware of the universality of John Coltrane’s music and his philosophy, and that his spirit and legacy does reach and touch the lives of people of many different faiths, creeds, and religions. We, however, in this time and place, are grateful for the opportunity to lift up the Name of Jesus Christ through Saint John Coltrane’s music, knowing from personal experience and testimony, and from a great cloud of witnesses, that the Spirit of the Lord is in this Sound Praise as it is delivered from heaven through John.

I take issue with the dating of his ascension. Yes, he kicked drugs at that time, but he still had to finish his apprenticeship with Miles Davis before he achieved the alleged union with the Almighty. You can hear the difference on Giant Steps, and you’ll be surprised as to what gives it away as his ascension piece.

Coltrane is having one hell of a good time! I’ve always thought that ascension, nirvana, or achievement of the ultimate wisdom will be accompanied by howls of joyous laughter, because I have the feeling that when we get there, we’ll find out how beautifully obvious it was in the first place.

While I love Coltrane’s previous work, on Giant Steps his exuberance, playfulness and sense of humor come to the fore in a joyous celebration of musical freedom. There are parts of Giant Steps that make me laugh out loud when I hear them; the vamps are sometimes unexpected and undeniably witty. As for the technical aspects, you can read good baseline descriptions of “sheets of sound” and “Coltrane Changes” on Wikipedia; if you’re really into the theoretical underpinnings and can read scores, I’d refer you to Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life in Music. If you’d like to understand the man, Coltrane on Coltrane, a series of interviews covering a good part of his career, is definitely the way to go.

But before you go there, just sit back and enjoy the music. The melodies here are phenomenal, intensely complex but curiously memorable, and the horizontal movement of the melody is endlessly enriched by the nimble vertical movement of all those chords. When I used to drive a car, I loved putting on Giant Steps and using it as the soundtrack for my journeys through urban and suburban America; sometimes the music echoed the hustle and bustle, sometimes the loneliness of it all, and sometimes the sheer beauty of a fleeting moment appearing and disappearing as I sped by.

As intimidating as that barrage of chords listed above may appear, when you listen to “Giant Steps” it sounds as smooth and flowing as a forest stream after the first heavy rain of the season. The dominant motif is quite catchy, a tune you’d hum when you’re feeling on top of your game and all is right with the world. Pianist Tommy Flanagan suggested in the Lewis Porter book that “I don’t think there was any melody, just the chord sequence, which spells out the melody, practically.” The speed of the piece tends to blur the distinctions, though, and Tommy did have a challenging time with the tempo. In discussing his compositions with Ralph Gleason, Coltrane said, “I have yet to write a song that had a melody [laughter]. ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’ was one of the few, that had a melody. And—well, ‘Naima’ had a melody. That was a ballad, though. But these other things I write, I’ve just been goin’ to the piano, gettin’ chords, and then I’ll take a melody, after a while, somewhere out of the chords, you know?” Personally, I couldn’t care less how Coltrane got there . . . if you define melody as the notes in a horizontal sequence (chords are vertical), then “Giant Steps” has a very memorable melody. The music is upbeat, both in terms of speed and mood, and the patterns Coltrane plays not only knock you out because of the beauty of the movement but because of the superhuman fingering and voicing (modifying the inner mouth and tongue to vary the pitch and the “color” of the sound).

The following video from YouTube consists of animated sheet music of “Giant Steps” synchronized to the original recording. I love reading scores when I listen to music, and this one is not only a hoot but a great visual for people who don’t read music because it captures Coltrane’s speed and sophistication in visual form. Enjoy!

YouTube player

“Cousin Mary” will feel more familiar to most listeners because of the blues structure, but Coltrane had a hard time leaving anything alone, so this isn’t your I-IV-V blues. He spots you the I and the IV, but then all bets are off. I know that when I go into music theory most people tune out, so let me focus on Coltrane’s artistic intent. What he was trying to do is paint a musical picture of a cousin he described as an “earthy, folksy person”. Now, take that brief description and listen to the tune. I don’t know about you, but I can see Mary, with her big hips swinging and her mouth going a mile a minute rattling off gossip and bullshit containing more than a few words that were not intended for polite company. That opening three note motif is her signature move, telling you Mary uses three quick movements to announce herself to the people in the room: one step, two steps, hands on hips. Mary’s a gas! Jazz, especially modern jazz, is primarily instrumental music, so you don’t have spoken language to fall back on as an interpretive tool. Jazz at its best expresses the emotions we can’t put into words, so what I like to do is just let the music fill me with pictures and emotions. While your accuracy will improve if you know the composer’s intent (which is why I advise people new to jazz to start with Sketches of Spain, which is loaded with backstory), if the “meaning” or the “state” or the “feeling” that emerges from the experience gives you a sense of satisfaction, fuck trying to explain it. Enjoy! Before we leave “Cousin Mary,” I have to add that it is quite obvious that the rest of the band is much more comfortable with this piece than they were with “Giant Steps.” Paul Chambers has a fabulous turn on the bass and Tommy Flanagan is more into the groove on this one.

YouTube player

“Countdown,” a variation of a Miles Davis number called “Tune Up” (pun intended, btw), is probably the least accessible piece to the new listener. This is much more of a hard bop piece played at a tempo even faster than “Giant Steps,” well over 300 beats per minute. Art Taylor opens the piece with an energetic drum intro, shifting to an extremely rapid high-hat rhythm once Coltrane takes center stage . . . excuse me . . . once Coltrane is shot out of a cannon to take the lead. Porter calls this a “blistering improvisation,” and I have no better way to describe it. Coltrane’s wondrous abilities aside, I’ve always considered “Countdown” a superb example of jazz collaboration and a reaffirmation of my Count Basie Theory that the little stuff often matters more than the big stuff. A little more than a minute into the song, Tommy Flanagan enters in deep background, comping Coltrane with supporting chords. It’s very subtle, but as his volume increases, the dynamics of the piece completely change, creating a high-speed urban, rush-hour mood that gives Coltrane’s solo a richer context. About thirty seconds before the piece ends, Paul Chambers comes in with the bass, filling in the canvas. What we’re left with is a musical story of self-expression merging into the flow of life. And all this takes place in less than two-and-a-half minutes. If you can force yourself not to let Coltrane’s opening improv befuddle you and accept it as a solo voice in search of a chorus, you’ll deeply appreciate this wonderful slice of music.

“Spiral” is probably the song on Giant Steps that gets the least amount of attention. Too bad, because this is cabaret jazz at its best! Kick back, take a sip of your very dry martini, light a smoke and dig the music! I love following Paul Chambers’ bass line on this one, and when he gets to his solo, the voices he creates from bending those big fat strings gives me the shivers. Even when he’s soloing, Chambers never loses the beat, one good reason why Coltrane said he always tried to focus on what the bass was doing to keep him on track.

I mentioned that Giant Steps is full of humor, and I laugh every time I hear Coltrane play the motif of “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Coltrane wrote this piece with his 10-year old daughter in mind, commenting on the liner notes, “When I ran across it on the piano, it reminded me of her because it sounded like a happy, child’s song.” I didn’t know that back-story when I first heard it sometime in my teens, but that’s exactly the image that came to mind: a child trying to make music. It’s an almost jolly piece, with some of Coltrane’s most relaxed and exuberant playing. It’s also noticeable that the quartet is really into this one, too: they sound crisp and more involved in creating the overall sound. There’s a hint of Thelonious Monk’s playfulness in Tommy Flanagan’s solo, and Chambers nails it once again with confident, marvelously nimble bass work. That moment when Coltrane brings it all back together with a series of single harmonic notes is another brilliantly subtle move.

YouTube player

And then there’s “Naima.” Oh my fucking God, “Naima.” You don’t need to know dick about music theory to appreciate “Naima.” One of the most sensuous pieces of music ever created, “Naima” is a slow-tempo number where Coltrane demonstrates he can express as much inner fire through simple melody and subtle voicing as he does on his improvisational explosions. The perfect way to savor “Naima” is to wrap your lover in your arms and guide him or her through a close, tender slow dance full of the kind of deep kissing where both of you moan in delight. Sometimes I’ll get in a “Naima” mood, leave the whips and chains for another day and simply melt into my lover’s body as we move to the music. Ecstasy!

Coltrane changed the quartet for this piece, going with Jimmy Cobb on drums and Wynton Kelly on piano. Cobb is superb with the brushes, and Wynton Kelly has a certain touch reminiscent of Bill Evans that works beautifully in a sweet number like this. Coltrane considered “Naima” his best composition, and it’s hard to argue with that as long as you consider A Love Supreme a completely different thing altogether.

YouTube player

“Giant Steps” closes with a bang, so if you’ve set up “Naima” as instructed and end the piece on a deep, sensuous kiss, you’ll want to make sure that a.) You have a servant handy who can lift the needle from the turntable or b.) You were smart enough to prepare an iPod playlist that allows you to transition to something a bit less mood-shattering . . . maybe something by Sade or Patti Austin. “Mr P. C.” takes off with the speed of the proverbial bat out of hell, not exactly what you want to hear when you are in a deeply romantic mood. Stunning juxtaposition aside, “Mr P. C.” is great fun, a simple minor blues number that really swings. Mr. P. C. is Paul Chambers, who gives as energetic a performance on that big double bass as Coltrane does on the tenor sax. The motif is another musical fragment that cracks me up; it would make for a fabulous background to a Monty Python secret agent movie. Whatever pictures it brings up in your mind, “Mr. P. C.” is one of the hottest pieces of jazz you’ll ever hear and the perfect way to close a work of joyous liberation.

As I am not particularly fond of religion, she says in the understatement of the century, I can’t really get behind the whole Coltrane-as-saint thing. But I do consider myself a spiritual person, and I can certainly understand the concept of a union with the eternal soul through music. The church calls that eternal soul god; my feeling is that it’s a presence that cannot be explained in language or understood by mortals. Whatever you want to call it, I firmly believe that great music is a path to something greater than ourselves, and that was the path John Coltrane needed to take to achieve his artistic goals. Giant Steps is the exuberant sound of a man who has found the way.

About author View all posts Author website


Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.