The Album List: # 195 John Coltrane “Giant Step”


We have come back to the man himself. Coltrane.

I can listen to Coltrane until the world ends, so magical is that man’s musicality and so supple is that horn.

Aided by Paul Chambers (the subject of “Mr. P.C.”), Tommy Flanagan, and Art Taylor, Coltrane set out to change the way jazz was played. Considering Giant Steps was recorded mere weeks after Coltrane had recorded A Kind of Blue as a part of Miles Davis’ band, this was indeed a bold and crazy plan. What Coltrane saw was an album that would be full of highly improvised, cerebral songs that focused on solos and came at you fast and freely.  Coltrane, the man who would create a version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” that would last nearly fourteen minutes, was a man of ideas. He wrote the seven tracks on Giant Steps, stepping away from the tradition that had jazz leaders play covers on record.  He wanted to create a new dialogue.

The stand out track, though, is Coltrane’s very personal “Naima”. Unlike the rest of the album, it is a ballad, beautiful and restrained. Written as a love note from Coltrane to his then wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs, it is minor key masterpiece, and one of Coltrane’s most famous songs.  The only true solo belongs to pianist Wynton Kelly, Coltrane’s comrade from Davis’ A Kind of Blue. It says something that Coltrane brought in Kelly, as well as Jimmy Cobb on drums, to aid him and Chambers on “Naima”. It was the same quartet that backed Miles on that other masterpiece album shortly before, and ultimately, they created the standard in Coltrane’s repertoire as a writer.

The rest of the album is boldly paced, quick in its syncopation, brash in its instrumentation, and highly melodic.  “Mr. P.C.” is pure swing, “Countdown”  is intense pure jazz, and “Giant Steps” would prove to be a nightmare for the band ( unreleased takes show pianist Flanagan struggling with the compositions myriad of chord changes and triads off the top of the session- Coltrane often sprung new compositions on his band and began recording unrehearsed in order to get the spirit of improvisation he craved on vinyl). If A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s masterpiece, a work of unmitigated genius, Giant Steps is where we see the ground work begin to get to that point. The former is a series of hymns. The latter is a series of secular speed freak classics.

Jazz is an often a deeply spiritual art form, and for me it’s the music of God as much as what Luther and Bach wrote for my childhood church. Coltrane is one of God’s greatest creations, and ultimately one of his greatest ambassadors. Coltrane himself is considered a religious figure by some factions of American religiosity. They heard it here, and they honour it. As it should be.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I listen to jazz on Sunday mornings.


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