“Giant Steps” At 50

John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is 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. Difficult as the fact may be to absorb for those still bowled over by the freshness and complexity of what Coltrane did with the piece, he made his stunning recording of “Giant Steps” 50 years ago today.
Giant Steps.jpgTo put the lasting impact of his accomplishment in perspective, think of an influential jazz recording made 50 years before Coltrane laid down “Giant Steps” on May 5, 1959. You can’t. There was none, because jazz as a distinct form of music did not exist on May 5, 1909. “Giant Steps” is a monument to the evolution of the art of jazz in less than half a century, a phenomenon unprecedented in any other fundamental genre of music. Coltrane’s rhythm section was Tommy Flanagan, piano; Paul Chambers bass; Arthur Taylor, drums. It has sometimes been pointed out that in his solo Flanagan seems less than comfortable with the changes. If you are a musician, imagine how comfortable you would be negotiating that minefield of chords if the music were set before you for the first time at a record session.
I am not sure that the video clip below explains what about “Giant Steps” led to an opening up of the approach to jazz improvisation. Indeed, I am not sure that Coltrane’s artistry can be explained; the quotients of mystery and spirit in his music are as essential as his quantifiable elements of musicianship and saxophone technique. The clip certainly shows what his astonishing solo on the piece is made of. Thanks to longtime Rifftides reader Dick McGarvin for bringing this to our attention. Hold onto your seats and, as Dick says, follow the bouncing ball.

After you have played or sung along with Coltrane, you may wish to take a few moments to read some of the more than 1,500 comments from YouTube viewers about “Giant Steps.” They range from the simplistic but inarguable:

this is really coool ..

To those that will boggle the minds of laymen:

Look for the tonal centers. The starting B chord throws people off, it can be treated as a Bmin7, giving you 6 beats in G, 6 beats in Eb, 6 beats in G, 4 beats in Eb and 4 beats in B; then 8 beats in Eb, 8 beats in G, 8 beats in B, 8 beats in Eb. The last bar is a turnaround in B to bring you back to the initial chord- you can play the D# to D to emphasize the change in tonal center or play a B. Find the pivot tones that adjacent tonal centers have in common to play across the bar lines.

En masse, the comments emphasize the impression that Coltrane’s performance has made on jazz listeners and jazz players, most of whom were probably not born when he recorded it.
The album Giant Steps is a basic repertoire item, a necessity in any serious collection.
“Giant Steps” led the artist Michal Levy to create an inspired film animation based on an abbreviated version of Coltrane’s recording. Her work is in the spirit, but not the style, of the pioneering Canadian artist Norman McLaren. To see Levy’s piece, go here.

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  1. Caleb says

    Thanks for this. Today I’ll also be thinking about my favorite Coltrane ballad–“Naima,” which, like the title track, has been often imitated but never replicated.

  2. rootlesscosmo says

    In tenor key, I notice, rather than concert key.
    The “Giant Steps” album certainly had a powerful effect, as I recall. But as for leading to an opening up… I’m not 100% sure it did. Though Coltrane had his own distinctive sound and style from the first Miles Davis quintet record, “Giant Steps,” the tune not the album, isn’t that different–in the challenge it poses to the soloist–from other fast-changes originals, like “Joy Spring” or “Moment’s Notice” (the latter on the “Blue Train” album.) I’d propose “My Favorite Things” as the real path-breaker, because it radically simplified the changes in order to give the soloist more latitude–if you’re scrambling to stay on top of the changes, it’s hard (as with Tommy Flanagan here) to devote your attention to anything else, like constructing a line.

  3. Allen Lowe says

    Years ago I asked Tommy Flanagan about this session, wondering if he’d had any problems with those changes or had any sense of the importance of the event, at the time. “It was just a set of chord changes” he said. and that was Tommy, who was prone to understatement. Or possibly he was tired of being asked, or felt that Trane was a peer and no more important a musician than he was-

  4. Dave James says

    Interesting post on Giant Steps. Following along with the music somehow makes one appreciate his artistry even more. Along this line, I thought you might get a kick out of a video I stumbled across on YouTube that involves a robot playing Giant Steps. Apparently, the robot is known as Coltron.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Dan Aldag says

    The story I’ve read about Flanagan and “Giant Steps” is that Coltrane did give the tune to Flanagan before the session, but didn’t tell him how fast it would be.