In February 1960 John Coltrane released “Giant Steps”, the fifth studio album in his career – the first for his new label Atlantic Records. Believed to be Coltrane’s first “genuinely iconic album”, many of its tracks went on to become practice templates for jazz saxophonists the world over.
Incredible to think about now, but it was within the same few weeks in the spring of 1959, that Coltrane played a key role in the creation of one of the most thoughtful and spacious of all jazz albums – Miles Davis’s iconic “Kind of Blue” – before channelling his virtuosity in to one of the fastest and most intense albums of all time, the game-changing “Giant Steps”.
On “Kind of Blue”, perhaps more than any he recorded with Miles Davis, Coltrane perfectly contrast Miles’ eloquent minimalism, adapting his style to fit the needs of the music. Harmony often remained static on these recordings, sometimes for as long as 16 bars at a time, challenging the improviser to create meaningful solos with sparse harmonic guidance.
The initial sessions for these recordings Coltrane took place on March 26, 1959, led by legendary vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Coltrane was dissatisfied with the results of this session with the original line-up including Cedar Walton and Lex Humphries, which saw them pulled for the sessions which led to the recordings used in final release (they do appear on subsequent compilations and reissues though).
Principal recording for the album took place on 4th-5th May – two weeks after Coltrane played in the final session for Kind of Blue. The track “Naima” (named after Coltrane’s wife at the time) was recorded on 2nd December with Coltrane’s bandmates, the rhythm section from the Miles Davis Quintet, who would also provide the backing for most of his next album, Coltrane Jazz.
Coltrane’s improvisation exemplifies the melodic phrasing that came to be known as “sheets of sound” (which we touched on in our Pharoah Sanders profile) and features his explorations into third-related chord movements that are now referred to as “Coltrane Changes”. The chord progression for the eponymous opening track “Giant Steps” consists of a distinctive set of chords that create key centres a major third apart. It has become common for jazz musicians to use it as a practice piece ever since, with its difficult chord changes presenting a specific harmonic challenge, that serves as a gateway into modern jazz improvisation.
We could attempt to try and explain the unique challenge Coltrane presented to the world, but we absolutely love this explainer video from Vox (who we just love in general), which does a far better job than we ever could:
Historically, Coltrane appears as the link between the song-based techniques of Charlie Parker and the more abstract “free jazz” approach of Ornette Coleman – but this is, of course, a fairly simplistic observation. Coltrane was an artist that fully embraced the notion of continuous creative evolution, and it was his desire to fuel his work with a musical curiosity that celebrated style as a process, not an arrival point, that made him truly unique.
In 2004, ‘Giant Steps” was one of fifty recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. It attained gold record status in 2018, having sold 500,000 copies. It is undoubtably one the most influential jazz albums of all time.
|Recorded||4–5 May, 1959, 2 December, 1959|
|Studio||Atlantic Studios, New York|
|John Coltrane||Tenor Saxophone|
|Wynton Kelly||Piano (“Naima”)|
|Jimmy Cobb||Drums (“Naima”)|
|Cedar Walton||Piano (“Giant Steps” & “Naima” Alt. Versions)|
|Lex Humphries||Drums (“Giant Steps” & “Naima” Alt. Versions)|
|1||Syeeda’s Song Flute||7:00|