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.