Posted by keithosaunders on March 9, 2010
Giant Steps is a fascinating album. It was a breakthrough album for John Coltrane whose frenetic sheets of sound took up residence in its impossibly difficult title track. The Giant Steps chord changes, which some say are based on the bridge of Rogers and Hart’s Have You Met Miss Jones, would dominate the album, as well as the several record dates that would proceed it. It is remarkable to hear Coltrane cutting through those changes as if they were butter, particularly on Countdown, a duet with drummer Arthur Taylor for three-quarters of the track.
Giant Steps is an uptempo song divided into two eight bar sections, the first of which features two disparate changes per measure. The second eight bar section is a series of ii-V-i progressions resolving in three different keys. The song is challenging to say the least — a harmonic minefield — and even those with the technique to execute at this tempo have a difficult time making a personal statement.
Coltrane recorded Giant Steps just one month after his work on Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, an album noted for its scarcity of chords and moody ambience. [Kind of Blue was recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959 while Giant Steps was recorded May 4 and 5, 1959]
I have always felt that the songs on Giant Steps served as etudes — vehicles for Coltrane’s obsession with these angular chords. In the subsequent dates, particularly on Coltrane’s Sound (not released at the time) and My Favorite Things, Coltrane was able to discover the soul in these changes. His playing became more lyrical, and if it can be believed, even more confident.
These Atlantic dates, recorded in an 18 month period between April of 1959 and October of 1960, were Coltrane’s farewell to playing over standard 32 bar song chord progressions. Few players before or since could equal his mastery of harmony, as well as his lyricism. When he found the drummer and pianist that fit his sound it was if his concept and playing came into alignment. In the later Atlantic dates you can hear him straddling both hard bop and model music. In the fall of 1961 at the Village Vanguard things would change for everyone.