Watch a Jaw-Dropping Visualization of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” Solo

John Coltrane talked about his play­ing in edu­ca­tion­al terms, see­ing him­self as a stu­dent and, through his play­ing, as a teacher of new musi­cal forms and pos­si­bil­i­ties. His most endur­ing les­son may come from what some crit­ics call his first tru­ly icon­ic and most influ­en­tial album, 1960’s Giant Steps. On the record­ing’s title com­po­si­tion, Coltrane meant to chal­lenge him­self, and end­ed up chal­leng­ing gen­er­a­tions of musi­cians.

“The under­ly­ing har­mon­ic move­ment of Coltrane’s 16-bar com­po­si­tion — often called the ‘Coltrane Changes’ — has long been a set­tled mod­ule in jazz edu­ca­tion ped­a­gogy,” writes Stu­art Nichol­son in an essay for Jazz­wise. Cit­ing Coltrane schol­ar and biog­ra­ph­er Lewis Porter, Nichol­son calls the com­po­si­tion “effec­tive­ly an étude — or a thor­ough study — of third-relat­ed chord move­ment”: 26 chords and 10 key changes between 3 keys, B, G, and Eb.

This was new ter­ri­to­ry; with the title track to Giant Steps, Coltrane left the blues, which he’d stretched to the lim­it on Blue Train (his only record as a band­leader for Blue Note). He was recov­er­ing from his great­est life les­son — get­ting fired from Miles Davis’ band and get­ting clean — and fol­low­ing through on a real­iza­tion he’d had in the ear­ly fifties after join­ing Dizzy Gille­spie’s band: “What I did­n’t know with Diz,” he said, “was that what I had to do was real­ly express myself. You can only play so much of anoth­er man.”

Coltrane’s “oth­er man” was Char­lie Park­er, but as he moved away from Park­er as hero and began to study under Monk and Miles, he devel­oped his own impro­vi­sa­tion­al style, dubbed “sheets of sound,” and his own approach to play­ing chord pro­gres­sions: the “Coltrane changes.” On “Giant Steps,” Coltrane pushed the dia­ton­ic scale almost to break­ing (a cre­ative intu­ition giv­en that “dia­ton­ic” derives from a Greek word mean­ing “to stretch” or “extend”). Coltrane stretched, but he did­n’t pull his changes out of thin air.

Many of the ideas were already there in the canon — in Jerome Kern’s 1917 “Till the Clouds Roll By” and Duke Elling­ton’s “Blue Rose,” notes Carl Woideck for the Library of Con­gress. “Not rec­og­nized at the time, the sec­ond half of ‘Giant Steps’ was tak­en direct­ly from a pas­sage in the­o­rist Nico­las Slonim­sky’s ‘The­saurus of Scales and Melod­ic Pat­terns’ which vis­its the same three keys that the first half of Coltrane’s piece does.”

It took a mind and will like Coltrane’s to draw these threads togeth­er into the har­mon­ic com­plex­i­ty of “Giant Steps.” The com­po­si­tion’s “relent­less chord changes of key cre­ate a har­mon­ic obsta­cle course that is dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate, more so at this rapid tem­po,” Woideck writes. This is espe­cial­ly so for soloists, as pianist Tom­my Flana­gan found out when he almost lost the thread in his solo sec­tion.

In the visu­al­iza­tion above by Har­lan Broth­ers, we see Coltrane sail through his solo, bounc­ing off his band while they work through the changes. “Instead of just visu­al­iz­ing the sax solo,” writes Broth­ers, “I thought it would be super fun to be able to see how the entire quar­tet inter­act­ed,” includ­ing Flana­gan, bassist Paul Cham­bers, and drum­mer Art Tay­lor. See Coltrane’s changes hit like col­ored drops of rain in a down­pour in the ani­ma­tion and learn more about how it was made at Broth­er’s YouTube page.

Coltrane’s com­plex­i­ty is daunt­ing for the most accom­plished musi­cians. How much more so for non-musi­cians? It can seem like “you need a doc­tor­ate of music to go any­where near his record­ings,” Nichol­son writes. But “noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.” With its danc­ing lines and cir­cles, Broth­er’s visu­al­iza­tion gives us anoth­er way to appre­ci­ate the “sheer joy of music mak­ing and the pow­er and ener­gy of his play­ing” that inspires stu­dents, seri­ous fans, and new­com­ers alike through “uni­ver­sal val­ues that still speak to us now.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How John Coltrane Intro­duced the World to His Rad­i­cal Sound in the Ground­break­ing Record­ing of “My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

John Coltrane Draws a Mys­te­ri­ous Dia­gram Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal & Mys­ti­cal Qual­i­ties of Music

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Jiro Naito says:

    Set up for­mu­la­ry it self is very artis­tic visu­al­iza­tion. Frac­tal inter­pre­ta­tion such as pol­ish math­e­mati­cian have done.

  • Harlan J Brothers says:

    Thanks for a ter­rif­ic and well-writ­ten arti­cle, Josh! It real­ly adds a won­der­ful frame­work for more ful­ly appre­ci­at­ing the genius of John Coltrane.

  • Crocodile Chuck says:

    ‘Giant Steps’ was record­ed in 1959 & released in 1960.

  • Grahame Rhodes says:

    Oh I thought it was Have you met Miss Jones. Still in order to real­ly get inside Giant Steps then copy Bill Evans prat­ice reg­i­men and prac­tice Giant Steps in all keys.

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