Giant Steps

John Coltrane

Atlantic, 1959

http://www.johncoltrane.com

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/15/2007

You may not own Giant Steps, but chances are you’ve heard the entire album about as many times as some of the albums in your collection. Walk into a coffee shop known for playing jazz and you’ll recognize the opening chords to the title track of John Coltrane’s seminal 1959 masterpiece.

For casual jazz fans, Giant Steps may not sound revolutionary. Coltrane’s melodic, occasionally easygoing style on the tenor saxophone can sometimes regulate the album to background music if you do not concentrate on the intensely dense sonic layering. It’s a universal truth that the best artists, be it painters, writers or musicians, can make a work seem absolutely effortless -- when in truth that is usually furthest from the case. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The best way to appreciate Giant Steps through fresh ears is to know a bit of history about Coltrane. Before embarking as a lead player, Coltrane worked with the best jazz artists in the industry in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Starting with Dizzie Gillespie, then working with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Coltrane gained the best apprenticeship a jazz artist could dream of. Nat Hentoff, former editor at The Jazz Review, writes in Giant Steps’ liner notes that Miles Davis encouraged Coltrane and “stimulated his harmonic thinking.” When Giant Steps was released, it was the first album of all-new material from Coltrane.

Hentoff quotes Davis in the liner notes of Giant Steps. Davis notes that one of Coltrane’s signature methods is play five notes of a chord and then throughout the piece, Coltrane changes the structure, attempting to find as many ways for that chord to sound as possible. “It’s like explaining something five different ways,” Davis said in the liner notes. That technique is one of the reasons Giant Steps remains such a groundbreaking achievement, not only in jazz, but in other forms of music. You can hear such approaches in Beatles and Beach Boys recordings as well as the more innovative rap artists of today.

Giant Steps can be appreciated for its influence, but even non-jazz fans will find plenty of moments to relish on Giant Steps.  The frenzied velocity of “Countdown” will require dozens of plays before most listeners will even catch half of the notes played. The be-bop percussion of Art Taylor gives “Syeeda’s Song Flute” an irresistible lighthearted bounce. The closing ballads “Naima” and “Mr. P.C.” are also marvels as Coltrane paints an almost-cinematic landscape for each song.

Giant Steps has had its share of re-releases. Those looking for a ‘definitive’ reissue would do themselves a favor checking out Rhino’s 1998 remastered version, which features an additional eight tracks, all alternative versions of the songs on Giant Steps. Like Kind Of Blue, Giant Steps is a jazz album that is able to transcend the genre. It’s one for the ages.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic, and is used for informational purposes only.