Giant Steps

New Rhino reissues illuminate the bold leaps of '60s jazz heavyweights

Turbulent times produce turbulent music. The jazz of the early '60s is proof enough of that. As the civil-rights movement's cries for justice became increasingly insistent, the music of young jazz titans also strained for greater freedom.

These daring, noisy, almost cacophonous sounds were reviled by older listeners. Many white listeners saw the music as angry. Evil events, such as the Selma church bombing that Spike Lee recently dramatized in 4 Little Girls, lend credence to that interpretation.

Yet the evidence of five milestone recordings reissued during Black History Month by the Rhino label argues that this music had much more than anger going for it. A spirit of joyful exploration unites these recordings. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk (later known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk) stretched the boundaries of jazz to an extreme never heard before (and, sadly, rarely heard since). The albums--Coltrane's My Favorite Things and Giant Steps, Coleman's Free Jazz, Mingus' Blues & Roots and Kirk's The Inflated Tear--seem so fresh, so personal and so untied from commercial logic that they sound timeless.

For instance, Coleman's Free Jazz, originally released in September 1961, still sounds like music from another planet. That's not a bad thing, because it makes listeners reexamine every thought they've ever had about music. Coleman's major idea for the piece was to set no limits except for those imposed by the skills and listening abilities of the musicians themselves. He wanted them to dig into their deepest souls for music that would express who they were, implying that conventional styles of jazz kept them from doing so. Yet he also wanted them to listen to one another and make their music a continuous dialogue.

Coleman had only three small predetermined bits going in. These short parts would be called up on his cue, and the piece would start and end when he gave the signal. Those were all the instructions. It required a new mindset from players used to developing the harmonic and melodic content of their solos over the repeated chord patterns that form the skeletons of most songs.

Essentially, Coleman was playing the ensemble, not just his own horn. However, he wasn't a puppeteer. He didn't make them play this or that thing, except in his three predetermined figures. This was a group improvisation, and the original 37-minute version encompassed two sides of an LP. Since there was no silence during any part of the performance, the music faded out at the end of side one and faded in at the start of side two. The rerelease includes the 17-minute "First Take" that casts a light on exactly how free the proceedings were. The mood and texture of the piece are indistinguishable from Free Jazz, although the actual notes played vary quite a bit.

What's clear only in retrospect is how tentatively Coleman's musicians embraced their freedom. They weren't playing conventional chord patterns, but the two bass players (Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden) played walking-bass style and kept the pulse of the session swinging. Drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell didn't have traditional song cues to react to, but they didn't play out of rhythm either. They swung. So when, for a few moments, a single horn plays, it sounds like a conventional jazz session. Also, the musicians brought some set ideas to the proceedings as shown by a bass section that sounds remarkably similar in both recordings.

Freedom is too often confused with a lack of discipline. There is nothing undisciplined about Free Jazz. Coleman on alto saxophone, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet all were musicians of great skill trying to make expressive music on the spot, relying on nothing but their wits. Remarkably, they succeeded most of the time.

On the other hand, John Coltrane's Giant Steps (January 1960) and My Favorite Things (March 1961) sound more conventional today than they did when they came out. That simply means that Coltrane's innovations have become so widespread that we don't notice them anymore. Coltrane went through a number of periods in his work, but this one, which started while he was working with Miles Davis in the late '50s, may be his best.

Although both Coleman and Coltrane were on quests to create the most personal expression possible in music, Coltrane took an opposite approach to get there. Coleman threw out harmony and melody, but Coltrane developed his instrumental ability to completely master them. This made him one of the greatest tenor saxophone players ever, but that greatness didn't seem to matter to him.

For Coltrane, life was one long practice. He rarely put down his instrument for long. He confessed that he wasn't sure what he was seeking, and the alternate takes of My Favorite Things show that uncertainty, as he starts off from the same point but takes his solos in different directions. His solos always emphasized the trip over the destination.

Coltrane was criticized for putting too many notes into his solos, as though he was showing off his technical proficiency and ignoring expressive musical content. That's like criticizing the English language for having too many words in it. Studying Coltrane's solos shows that every note, no matter how fleeting, has a strong musical relationship to the chord changes of the song. To organize that complexly on the fly is amazing. What's apparent even with a casual listening is that the sheets of sound Coltrane produced gave his music a complex texture that also was emotionally engaging.

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