Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


September/October 2011: Babs Asper

John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1926-67)

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John Coltrane is one of the two most accomplished saxophonists in the history of jazz, the other being Charlie Parker. Coltrane blazed new sonic trails on his alto sax in songs that still sound fresh and timeless. He wrote and recorded numerous masterpieces, such as “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” “Central Park West,” and “A Love Supreme,” and brilliantly arranged the Broadway hit “My Favourite Things,” transforming it into a standard part of the jazz repertoire. He also made a significant contribution to the sound of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s pivotal release.

From the mid- to late-1950s, there were three key developments in Coltrane’s career. The first was when Coltrane apprenticed with Davis in 1955-56. Davis was fond of Coltrane’s sound and in particular loved how he could play the five notes of a chord and keep changing them around, in endlessly inventive ways. Miles was also a tough critic and, during one gig, asked Coltrane why his solos lasted so long. Coltrane innocently explained that he didn’t know how to stop. Davis teasingly suggested that he just take the saxophone out of his mouth. This was a difficult time for Coltrane—his life was in crisis; Davis eventually fired him because of his narcotics use.

At the start of 1958, after kicking his heroin addiction, Coltrane was back with Davis. In 1959, he played on the famous Kind of Blue record. It was a seminal album because most jazz until then had featured fast-moving changes. The Kind of Blue songs were more relaxed, and the musicians played short musical vamps, using them as the foundation for improvisation.

Kind of Blue gave Coltrane the creative impetus to record his next project, Giant Steps [Rhino #75203], his first album for Atlantic. Just two weeks later, Coltrane was in the studio with the same drummer, Jimmy Cobb, and bassist, Paul Chambers, used by Davis. An extraordinary year in jazz, 1959 saw four pivotal albums recorded in New York City: Giant Steps; Kind of Blue; Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus; and Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Giant Steps was just that. It represented Coltrane’s arrival as both a composer and a soloist. Most of the songs took shape when he was rehearsing at home, and his family plays a prominent role in the album. “Naima” is a loving, tender tribute to his wife. Coltrane’s playing here is beautifully sorrowful, and the song remains one of his most emotional melodic compositions. “Syeeda’s Song Flute” is named for Coltrane’s ten-year-old daughter. It reminded him of her because it sounded happy. The blues-flavoured “Cousin Mary” was a tribute to his cousin Mary Alexander, whom he grew up with in North Carolina.

The album’s title song, “Giant Steps,” gets its name because of Paul Chambers’s loping bass line. Tommy Flanagan’s frugal piano solo and his use of space are a magnificent contrast to the fast-paced note clusters Coltrane plays.

The seven songs that comprise Giant Steps helped open new doors for Coltrane. There were new possibilities for improvisation, and the album signaled just how far he was going to go beyond the boundaries of contemporary jazz.


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