John Coltrane's Landmark Album Giant Steps Turns 55
For many music fans, jazz can be a riddle wrapped in a mystery. While we may enjoy it, we would never attempt to explain it. In fact, jazz may be the most "alternative" music there is, because most of our brains just don't work the way a jazz musician's brain works; therefore, we simply can't relate to the why or how of its creation. Many of us crave order, even when we claim to love chaos, which allows us to wave the banners of rock, country, and hip-hop most easily. The vast majority of artists in those genres only seem chaotic.
Atlantic Records put out Giant Steps by John Coltrane in January of 1960. It wasn't the first jazz record and definitely not the last, but it is a benchmark. Although it's arguably not Coltrane's finest work (check out A Love Supreme), Giant Steps is both snake and snake charmer, alternately soothing and dizzying, but also completely fantastic, armed with stinging fangs. It is the album where Coltrane, or "Trane" as jazz lovers call him, seems to have solidified both his style and mastery of the true range of his instrument just seven years before his untimely death by liver failure at age 40.
Truth be told, Coltrane's work with the tenor saxophone is still almost entirely without peer to this day, and on Giant Steps, he shines brightly as he bobs and weaves with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Art Taylor. Giant Steps was the first time Coltrane recorded an album completely of his own compositions, and most jazz critics agree his work on the album forged the way for his late-career embrace of the more experimental sub-genre, free jazz. To witness the performance of these pieces live must have been something to see, with Coltrane's expressive command of his saxophone and his fingers flying across the keys.
Giant Steps featured seven tracks, kicked off by the title track. The song "Giant Steps" begins with a rather lazy sounding riff, but it's really just a ticking time bomb. The song explodes at the 26-second mark, and Coltrane and crew are off from there. At this point, it is difficult to tell if the charmer is charming the snake or if it is the other way around. If possible, listen to the album on a great stereo or a really nice set of headphones to get the full effect of the notes dancing around your head. Note the deft work of Flanagan and Taylor here as well, which is to take nothing away from bassist Chambers, either.
As the album progresses, the second track, "Cousin Mary," really swings and could easily have been great background music for a bit of physical comedy by Jerry Lewis or Peter Sellers in one of their early '60s comedies. "Countdown" is frantic, and again, another amazing example of the rare combination of speed and power Coltrane possessed. At just under two-and-a-half minutes, "Countdown" is the shortest track on the record, but good things do come in small packages. The aptly named "Spiral" closes out the "A" side of the album, with Coltrane's wonderful tenor sax tripping the light fantastic with Chambers and Flanagan's steady bass and piano dirge. There is soulfulness to "Spiral" that is truly satisfying, especially when Flanagan takes over in the center of the tune while Coltrane catches his breath and in turn, allows the listener to catch their own.
As the "B" side begins, Coltrane's playful opening lines in "Syeeda's Song Flute" are completely engaging, while pushing the song to its initial apex before giving way to Flanagan initially, and then bassist Chambers, who really shines on this particular album cut. For bass players out there, please check out Paul Chamber's impressive resume, as the man played with seemingly every major name in the jazz world and cut some pretty impressive tracks of his own over the years. Middle track "Naima" reminds the listener of the scenes in the classic film, "Days of Wine and Roses" where alcoholism is really starting to take over Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick's characters' lives. Slow, methodical, and searching for a brighter day, "Naima" was written for Coltrane's first wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs. "Mr. P.C." wraps up the record in fine, bebop form. Each member of the quartet shines again on this track, but Paul Chambers (who is the Mr. P.C. mentioned in the title) and Tommy Flanagan steal the show with their stellar bass and piano interplay before Coltrane and drummer Art Taylor trade powerful blasts of pure jazz.
Happy birthday, Giant Steps. We'll keep listening.
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