Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

John Coltrane bore an unusu­al bur­den. Many exper­i­men­tal artists who rad­i­cal­ly change their forms of music, and music in gen­er­al, are so out on the edge and ahead of their time they elude the public’s notice. But Coltrane was respon­si­ble for both “fur­ther­ing the cause” of free jazz and “deliv­er­ing it to an increas­ing­ly main­stream audi­ence,” as Lind­say Plan­er writes at All­mu­sic. This meant that he achieved the kind of recog­ni­tion in his short life that most musician/composers only dream of, and that his every attempt was heav­i­ly scru­ti­nized by crit­ics, a lis­ten­ing pub­lic, and record com­pa­nies not always ready for the most for­ward-think­ing of his ideas.

His immense pop­u­lar­i­ty makes Coltrane’s accom­plish­ments all the more impres­sive. While 1959 is often cit­ed as the “year that changed jazz” with a series of land­mark albums, two releas­es by Coltrane in 1960—My Favorite Things and Giant Steps—com­plete­ly rad­i­cal­ized the form, with reper­cus­sions far out­side the jazz world. In the lat­ter record­ing, writes Plan­er, Coltrane was “in essence, begin­ning to rewrite the jazz canon with mate­r­i­al that would be cen­tered on solos—the 180-degree antithe­sis of the art form up to that point. These arrange­ments would cre­ate a place for the solo to become infi­nite­ly more com­pelling,” cul­mi­nat­ing “in a fre­net­ic per­for­mance style that not­ed jazz jour­nal­ist Ira Gitler dubbed ‘sheets of sound.’”

The saxophonist’s “poly­ton­al tor­rents” upend the “cor­dial solos that had begun decay­ing… the genre, turn­ing it into the equiv­a­lent of easy lis­ten­ing.” There was noth­ing easy about keep­ing up with Coltrane. The title track of Giant Steps has become known for a rapid chord pro­gres­sion that cycles through three keys, built on an ear­li­er tech­nique known as the “Coltrane Changes.” Impro­vis­ing over these chords has become “a rite of pas­sage for jazz musi­cians” explains the Vox Ear­worm video above, mak­ing the tune “one of the most revered, and feared, com­po­si­tions in jazz his­to­ry.”

We can intu­it the dif­fi­cul­ty of Coltrane’s com­po­si­tions by lis­ten­ing to them, but with­out a back­ground in music the­o­ry, we won’t under­stand just what, exact­ly, makes them “so leg­endary.” Earworm’s “crash course” in the­o­ry from musi­cians Adam Neely and Brax­ton Cook demys­ti­fies Coltrane’s intim­i­dat­ing progression—so chal­leng­ing it tied up pianist Tom­my Flana­gan dur­ing his solo, and his halt­ing stabs can be heard on the record, fol­lowed by Coltrane’s aston­ish­ing­ly flu­id cas­cade of notes. “That’s messed up,” says Brax­ton, in sym­pa­thy. “I would want anoth­er shot.” What, besides the mad­den­ing­ly fast tem­po, sent Flana­gan into the weeds?

As with most music based in West­ern har­mo­ny, the song’s struc­ture can be demon­strat­ed by ref­er­ence to the cir­cle of fifths, a method of orga­niz­ing notes and scales that Coltrane made his very own. His bril­liance was in tak­ing rec­og­niz­able forms—the stan­dard II-V‑I jazz pro­gres­sion, for example—and push­ing them to their absolute lim­it.

“There are 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme of ‘Giant Steps,’” notes Jazz­wise mag­a­zine in its his­to­ry of the album. (Watch them all fly by in the ani­mat­ed sheet music above). The pro­gres­sion “pro­vides a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge for the impro­vi­sor with its quick­ly chang­ing key cen­tres.” Coltrane him­self, “han­dled pat­terns derived from pen­ta­ton­ic scales, trans­posed to fit each chord as it flew by, excep­tion­al­ly well.”

Keep watch­ing the Ear­worm video to find out how the “Giant Steps” pro­gres­sion is like a “musi­cal M.C. Esch­er paint­ing,” and to under­stand why Coltrane is con­sid­ered a god, or at least a saint, by so many who have followed—or strug­gled to follow—his work.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Coltrane Draws a Pic­ture Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­ics of Music

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme (1964)

Stream Online the Com­plete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Direc­tions at Once

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • nimitta says:

    Great arti­cle and video, which get at the tru­ly amaz­ing inno­va­tion and vir­tu­os­i­ty of ‘Giant Steps’. No won­der good ol’ Tom­my Flana­gan — a fine pianist who man­aged to keep up with none oth­er than Char­lie Park­er — couldn’t make those changes at first.

  • Jamal says:

    Well Coltrane was a cul­ture icon who grew to be an above and beyond clas­si­fi­ca­tion of what many have attempt­ed to define that’s the beau­ty of it

  • Jeff Sheloff says:

    I have been play­ing sax­o­phones for 57 yrs& have stud­ied w/many great teachers,players&musicians.One was Frank Fos­ter, back in the ear­ly 70’s.Frank was born on the same day& year John was& they were friends .Ask­ing Frank about Giant Steps& dis­cussing Tom­my Flanagan’s solo,Frank let me know that Trane had been practicing&working on”Steps” for at least 2years before it was recorded.There have been comments& crit­i­cisms about Tommy’s solo,and I don’t think many peo­ple real­ize that Tom­my had nev­er seen the musuc before! I won­der how many of the critics&musicians who have com­ment­ed about Tommy’s solo could have come into the stu­dio w/out ever see­ing the music b4 & got thru the first 16 bars? Wr know that ”steps “ is a chal­lenge, but in my opin­ion Tom­my Flana­gan did a great job on the spot!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.