Everyone has a favorite Coltrane album, where Giant Steps should certainly be near the top of every jazz listener’s top ten, released less than a year after the stunning work he’d done with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue.
There are those who are going to try and convince you that Giant Steps is stiff, others will say that Coltrane was still dissatisfied and dejected due to his (past) drug habit, yet I hear nothing but optimism on this recording, where John Coltrane sounds for all the world as if he’s looking straight into the future, though sadly a mere five years later he’d be conducting his music with some idealized image of god’s guiding hand; yet he’ll be the first to confess he’d no idea what god actually was. I on the other hand was a mere ten years old when my aunt and uncle took me to see Coltrane with Miles at Cafe Bohemia in New York City, where his solos were nothing short of essential and bright, and while the soloing doesn’t sound quite the same here, I would suggest that that’s entirely due to the absence of Miles Davis, as the two played on and off of each other so easily, in nearly an architectural manner of love and admiration.
While Giant Steps is not conducted through a sense of musical theory or technicality, Coltrane does come across as revisiting his past (around the edges) with Charlie Parker and even his Dizzy Gillespie influences. To understand this album, one must come to realize that the modern sound created here was entirely due to the use of musical patterns, especially those established back in 1927 by Loui Armstrong, where Coltrane here reshaped and refashioned those inspirations, creating this very modern sounding album by employing a musical tonic of complex playing and musical note negotiations that builds between the player (Coltrane) and his relationship with rhythmic sequencing, nearly dancing with patterns derived from pentatonic scales in an entirely satisfying manner, embracing the notion of an etude, a study or technical exercise that developed into a complete and musically intelligible composition surrounding the exploration of a particular technical problem in an entirely esthetically satisfying manner … though I would venture the idea that there were many personal issues Coltrane was visiting and working through here as well.
Giant Steps is not a difficult album to understand and embrace for listeners, though I have been told by other jazz musicians that recreating the album can be a daunting task, as it’s nearly an educational experience to understand and play this body of work, as there is simply so much information to be revealed and packed into that performance. That said, there are twenty-six chords in the song “Giant Steps” alone, while there are only ten key changes, with those key changes involving just three keys: B, G and Eb. In short, playing this track involves learning three pentatonic scales that need to be improvised over: F#, D and Bd, and while my ears may easily be delighted by this, playing it means musicians must pay close attention to exactly where the chords change; and this is only one song from this brilliant body of work. Now you'll pardon me if I laugh, for within the same breath, one could easily say that the title track lacks emotion, that it’s all about technique, with Coltrane creating a song that serves the purpose of competition between other musicians to see who’s best, which may (as a side note) indicate why this album with its sheets-of-sound, seems so much more important to men than to women, and why I (being a woman) perhaps don’t play it often enough.
With this being the first Coltrane album entirely composed of his own material, it’s an album that requires vinyl, it’s designed to be flipped over, where I’d suggest that mono is the way to listen, as stereo was just coming into it’s infancy, with the stereo mix lacking a sense of immediacy, even morality for me. That said, there are those who will try to convince you that contemporary recording wizardry totally cancels what I’ve just implied, though if you ever have the chance to hear this album on a true audiophile mono system composed of but one single center placed speaker, you will instantly understand what I’m saying as a sincere smile of satisfaction inches across your face.