Sixty Years Later \\ Camilla George on John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’

14th August 2019
Writer and broadcaster Ben Noble reviews how ‘Giant Steps’ is still vibrating in 2019, with Camilla George

Words: Ben Noble

‘Giant Steps’: the album that pushed the limits of bebop and hard bop music, that cemented John Coltrane’s reputation as a master of the genre and formed a stepping stone to his later innovations in free Jazz. Coltrane’s first LP made up exclusively of his own compositions, it spawned several jazz standards, showcasing his technical skill as well as his versatility. If Miles Davis‘ ‘Kind of Blue’ was a radical break from Jazz tradition, Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ was the culmination of that tradition in the late 1950s. Today, it’s seen as a fiendish test, a rite of passage, and a continuing inspiration for aspiring Jazz musicians.

Coltrane had played with legendary bebop musicians like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, for a long time citing Charlie Parker as his biggest influence. He was firmly in the tradition, a part of the movement that re-oriented Jazz music around soloing. However, famously self-critical, he didn’t attain the skill level he felt he needed until the mid 1950s. The opener of ‘Giant Steps’, from which the album takes its name, is the ultimate in technicality, a near-perfect artistic expression of musical theory. Frankly, it’s terrifying. At dizzying tempo, there’s no fewer than 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme, and you don’t need to be a musician to hear how difficult it must be to play – let alone to solo over. It was so innovative (and is so nefariously difficult), that the changes in the song have come to be known as ‘Coltrane Changes’. It’s still seen as a benchmark today. ‘Giant Steps’ is “groundbreaking in terms of harmonic possibilities and compositional beauty,” says Camilla George, the saxophonist behind 2018’s ‘The People Could Fly’. “There’s so much packed into this masterpiece, I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning from it –  it opened up a whole new area of harmony for me.”

Nobody could call ‘Giant Steps’ easy listening. Coltrane developed his own soloing techniques – extremely quick, dense patterns of notes including arpeggios and scales which could add up to hundreds of notes streaming from high to low. This, too, was even given its own name, ‘sheets of sound’, by critic Ira Gilter. You can clearly hear his influence in today’s leading lights of the Jazz scene. Camilla George reflects on London’s recent explosion: “a lot of Jazz musicians do draw from these classic albums. Although it may not be obvious in the music that they play, the spirit of Coltrane is there.” ‘Giant Steps’ played no small part in the common attitude that a Jazz musician needs to master the technicalities to flourish, and this song is still considered par for the course in music education. If you’re enjoying some contemporary sax, whether it’s Shabaka Hutchings or Nubya Garcia, you can bet they’ve played Coltrane.

What gives Coltrane the edge though is that his intensity, passion and personality shine through his technical excellence. His challenge was to make an album that was as appealing and accessible, as it was virtuosic. See ‘Cousin Mary’, a rootsy blues track, and the swinging, vibrant ‘Mr P.C.’, both of which use much more basic chord changes to ground Coltrane’s wild soloing. ‘Naima’ is now a classic ballad, well known for its sensitivity and restraint. For Camilla, it’s down to Coltrane’s “inherent spirituality” and “sheer joy in music making. I’m in awe of the sheer power and energy of his performances, as well as the strength of his compositions.”

Whilst a hugely influential album in its own right, ‘Giant Steps’ was also a part of a process for Coltrane. Still held up as a study of compositional brilliance meeting fierce passion, ‘Giant Steps’ was also the door that opened the way for his later use of multiphonics, modal improvisation and free Jazz. It’s best understood as part of his evolution, the benchmark in a career emphasising continual change and innovation – but always insisting on virtuosity. 

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