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.”