Arguably the most famous saxophone player in history, John Coltrane’s music not only enthralled fans, but changed the way that future generations of jazz musicians approached improvisation.
As part of our classic albums series, we take a look at his most groundbreaking record, Giant Steps.
John William Coltrane was a towering figure in the history of jazz, and arguably the last of the giants of the music.
Since his death in July 1967, no single figure has stepped forth and influenced the music scene in the way that Coltrane did.
This is perhaps because towards, by the end of the sixties, the music had become so diverse; Miles and Coltrane had created followers and practitioners that were time-locked. Some pursued the hard bop stylings of the mid-fifties; others the modal jazz scene; others free and avant garde that emerged in the latter part of his life.
Throughout his career, Coltrane courted controversy; his addiction to heroin is oft sited as causing problems with his playing and development, and may ultimately have contributed to his premature death at the age of just forty.
By 1947 he had made the switch to tenor sax and could be heard in the band of Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, and later in the groups led by Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.
Trane’s first big break came in 1955 when Miles Davis recruited him for his new quintet. Along with pianist Red garland, bassist Paul Chambers and Phill Joe Jones on drums, Davis hit upon a winning formula with what has been dubbed as his ‘First Great Quintet’.
However, Coltrane’s heroin habit was becoming more and more of an issue and Miles (a former addict himself) fired the saxophonist and disbanded the quintet. It has frequently been reported that the best thing that Miles did for Trane was “to hire him, and fire him”.
After a period playing and studying with pianist Thelonious Monk in 1957, Coltrane had rid himself of his drug habit and was clean. Miles summarily reconvened the band with the addition of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley on alto to form a sextet that was destined to make the classic Kind Of Blue album a couple of years later.
Now free of narcotics, Coltrane had a second lease of life and was determined not to waste it. He threw himself into his music in a way that was almost superhuman.
Fellow saxophonist Lee Konitz is on record as saying that Trane “must practice ten to twelve hours a day to play the way he does”.
Coltrane became obsessed with chords and harmony, accumulating a theoretical knowledge that would leave some of his contemporaries struggling in his wake.
After making a few albums under his own name for Prestige Records and Blue Note, the saxophonist secured a contract with Atlantic Records and from the outset was determined to make an impact.
His first record for his new label was actually his fifth album under his own name.
Another first, however, was that the resulting album Giant Steps, was the first recording to feature all compositions penned by Coltrane.
The making of the album was not all plain sailing, though…
Whilst the majority of the album was recorded over two days in May 1959, the first attempt to record some of the music in a session on March 26th was deemed unsatisfactory.
With Paul Chambers on bass, the only constant throughout all the sessions, Coltrane enlisted the services of pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Lex Humphries.
Walton struggled with the complexity of the title track with its fast moving chords and unusual harmonic structure moving in thirds (as opposed to the usual fourths common in western harmony).
The pianist was to recall in later years that he had wished he had more time with the composition to master it, and this along with the other titles recorded that day were confined to the vaults.
The sessions held in May 1959 yielded better results and six of the seven tunes that would appear on the album were recorded to Coltrane’s satisfaction.
The saxophonist himself is in magnificent form.
His tone is firm and equally weighted across his impressive three octave range, and his passion and improvisational prowess at the peak of his powers.
Pianist Tommy Flanagan makes a decent fist of his solo on the opening ‘Giant Steps’ having had a couple of dry runs with Coltrane at a much slower pace.
Somewhat shocked at the tempo that the leader counted off, Flanagan paces his solo and peppers it with space that allows his improvisation to flow and provide relief to Coltrane’s torrid outpouring that preceded it.
Bassist Paul Chambers’ playing here is exemplary. Negotiating the tricky theme, supporting the saxophonist every step of the way, and then maintaining the heat for Flanagan’s solo and filling the spaces tastefully allowing the pianist a momentary respite to catch his breath.
The relentless tempo is maintained for ‘Cousin Mary’ – another tune to become a staple in the jazz repertoire. Despite the tempo, the musicians feel a little more at home with the structure of the composition.
‘Trane solos first with a blistering effort.
Listen carefully to his phrases here and on the title track as there are certain motifs that the saxophonist would use and develop further in the years to follow.
Flanagan’s solo is far more assured, and Chamber’s also gets in a fine effort. Art Taylor gets his moment in the limelight with the opening intro to the blistering ‘Countdown’, and then matching the saxophonist’s intensity until joined by piano and bass to relieve the tension.
In another dedication to family members, after cousin Mary, comes ‘Syeeda’ Song Flute’ dedicated to his ten year old daughter.
Despite the brisk tempo, the is a joyous and innocence inherent in the composition that lightens Coltrane’s questing spirit and his solo is perhaps the most relaxed on the record.
‘Naima’, written for his then wife, is one of his most famous and often played compositions, and has a completely different feel.
Not just because of the ballad tempo, but this piece features his colleagues in the Miles Davis Sextet with Wynton Kelly, Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb.
Countless live performances with Miles and this rhythm section bring a familiarity that is built on trust and rapport over time.
Coltrane’s sound is full and tender, yet still retaining that granite tone. What makes the piece so compelling is the beauty of the melody, and the weight and attack given to each note.
The original album closes with ‘Mr. P.C.’ for Paul Chambers.
Another headlong theme that Coltrane takes by the scuff of its neck and continues to disturb and worry throughout his solo.
Once again, Flanagan is on sure territory and delivers a fleet and flowing solo supported sympathetically by Chambers and Art Taylor’s steady yet discreet drumming.
Giant Steps is a remarkable recording that, with the benefit of hindsight, is the first real indication that the saxophonist was ready to strike out on his own.
His tenure with Miles had given him a stable environment in which to hone his musical ideas night after night on the bandstand, and during his lengthy practice sessions.
1959 was a monumental year for Coltrane, and jazz in general.
Only weeks before he had been in the studio with Miles recording Kind Of Blue, with the trumpeter taking the modal approach of playing off scales rather than chord sequences, to his own session that would take chordal playing to the very limits.
Two incredibly important albums that would catapult the saxophonist into the limelight, and on the path of musical discovery that would consume him for the rest of his life.
Recording Information | Giant Steps
- Giant Steps
- Cousin Mary
- Syeeda’s Song Flute
- Mr. P.C.
John Coltrane (tenor saxophone)Tommy Flanagan (piano) (Tracks 1 – 5 & 7) Paul Chambers (bass) (Tracks 1 – 5 & 7) Art Taylor (drums) (Tracks 1 – 5 & 7)
Wynton Kelly (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Jimmy Cobb (drums)
May 4 1959 (tracks 3 & 4); May 5, 1959 (tracks 1, 2, 5 & 7)
December 2, 1959 (track 6)
Released: 1960 on Atlantic Records