Saturday, October 10, 2015

John Coltrane - 1960 "Giant Steps"

Giant Steps is the fifth studio album by jazz musician John Coltrane as leader, released in 1960 on Atlantic Records, catalogue SD 1311. His first album for his new label Atlantic, it is the breakthrough album for Coltrane as a leader, and many of its tracks have become practice templates for jazz saxophonists. In 2004, it was one of fifty recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.

Arguably the first of John Coltrane's great album masterpieces, 1960’s Giant Steps hardly came out of nowhere, as this four-disc set clearly shows. Featuring key tracks with Coltrane working as both a bandleader and as a sideman in sessions with the likes of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Hank Mobley, and others recorded for the Prestige, Savoy, Columbia, and Blue Note labels between 1957 and 1960, plus some 40 minutes of radio and other interviews with the saxophonist, this fascinating collection culminates with the complete Giant Steps album from Atlantic Records. 

Released in January 1960, John Coltrane's first album devoted entirely to his own compositions confirmed his towering command of tenor saxophone and his emerging power as a composer. Apprenticeships with Dizzy, Miles, and Monk had helped focus his furious, expansive solos, and his stamina and underlying sense of harmonic adventure brought Coltrane, at 33, to a new cusp--the polytonal "sheets of sound" that distinguished his marathon solos were offset by interludes of subtle, concise lyricism, embodied here in the tender "Naima." That classic ballad is a calm refuge from the ecstatic, high-speed runs that spark the set's up-tempo climaxes, which begin with the opening title song, itself a cornerstone of modern jazz composition. This exemplary reissue benefits from eight alternate takes of the original album's seven stellar tracks, excellent remastering of the original tapes, and an expanded annotation.

It's understandable that many listeners may prefer to "Giant Steps" the more accessible earlier or later Trane. The former offers up his explorations within more familiar song forms; the latter makes the song secondary to the soloist's quest for a rapture beyond musical form altogether. "Giant Steps," on the other hand, is a musican's album. It set a new standard not only for saxophonists but all musicians, requiring a combination of harmonic knowledge and technical facility that sent numerous musicians back to the woodshed for countless hours of practice. Without this album, and especially the title song and "The Countdown," Coltrane's early work would have seemed short of realizing its potential, and his later work would have been open to increasing suspicion about his actual credentials. Like Armstrong's cadenza on "West End Blues" and Bird's break on "Night in Tunisia," "Giant Steps" turned heads and gave a generation of musicians a whole new understanding of what jazz improvisation was capable of producing.
For the more technically minded, Trane's revision of dominant-tonic harmony is more impressive than his later embracing of modes as the sole platform for his scales and upper register probings. Suggested by the challenging bridge of Rodgers and Hart's "Have You Met Miss Jones," the sequence moves through a cycle of descending major thirds which, in the hands of most musicians, feels awkward and unnatural. Coltrane not only mastered the sequence but learned how to use it as a substitution in conventional harmonic settings. More impressively, he learned to execute it with an agility and naturalness that makes it possible for the listener to ignore the harmonic underpinning entirely and be swept up by the wave of emotion and melodic inventiveness.
"Giant Steps" is the main reason Sonny Rollins temporarily stopped playing in public. To his credit he came up with his own solution to the tyrannous sameness of much pop song harmony, but he was never able to come to terms with the harmonic complexity and technical innovations introduced by Coltrane. On the other hand, few have.

My purpose here is not to simply add more superlatives to this legendary album's justly proud reputation -- it's everything and more that has been written about it of a praiseworthy nature; and you'll find plenty of praise here in these reviews (see especially the insightful words from Samuel Chell). But there remains one rather 'technical', and curiously long-lived misconception about GIANT STEPS which, as a serious student of jazz and avid music collector, myself (I have virtually all of Coltrane's impressive recorded output), I have wanted to correct
for years -- a misunderstanding which, I hasten to add, in NO way diminishes the brilliance and stature of this pivotal milestone in Coltrane's prolific career.

The problem is this: over the years, repeated references (and you'll find some of them in these reviews) to this classic album's being the ultimate representation of Coltrane's famous
'sheets of sound' phase, or technique, are simply mistaken. The so-called 'sheets of sound' effect that so startled early Coltrane audiences, in fact, emerged in his late '50s albums for Prestige -- not yet fully developed in the '56-'57 sides with the early Miles Davis Quintet (not even on that groundbreaking group's final recording, Miles' first for Columbia, 'ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT), but very well documented, even dominating, in Coltrane's prolific late '57-'58 period on Prestige, where the best examples of his 'sheets of sound' are to be found.

Technically, 'Trane's much-touted 'sheets of sound' amounted to his simply (!) shifting into a 'higher gear', at slow-to-medium-fast tempos -- essentially, playing more 16th notes (i.e., 4 notes to every beat), instead of relying on the more typical
8th-note orientation (i.e., 2 notes to each beat) of most modern jazz solos from early be-bop onward. Coltrane's solos during this period often used this technique to the point of letting those rapid-fire, 16th-note runs dominate his playing -- giving rise to the description, 'sheets of sound', or, sometimes, the more pejorative (and unjust) charge from critics that he was just 'running scales'. Upon even cursory examination, Coltrane's solos on GIANT STEPS, on the contrary -- despite the prevalence of furious tempos (which should not be confused with how many notes PER BEAT are being played!) -- actually do NOT contain a preponderance of the notorious 16th-note passages. In fact, the relatively spare use of his well-established, '4-to-the-beat' phrases on this 1960 classic might be viewed as one of the more 'unexpected' aspects of this landmark entry in the great Coltrane legacy. His wonderfully agile, complex, and justly famous solos on such pieces as the title track, and even the demonically paced 'Countdown', in fact, consist of predominantly 8th notes; and, while the fast tempos, themselves, of course, may dictate a rapid torrent of notes, they still mostly come at 'only' 2 to the beat -- not the daunting 4 per beat that really define the 'sheets of sound' effect. It may be suggested that the generally fast tempos on GIANT STEPS are largely responsible for the relative absence of 16th-note runs throughout the album (as a practical limitation, even for Coltrane!); yet, it also is true that even the more moderately paced pieces -- normally more conducive to 'sheets of sound' flights -- are relatively free of that effect, compared to Coltrane's previous work on Prestige.

At this album's date, the intense, multi-noted, and profoundly influential explorations that would largely define Coltrane's approach, even to the end, were yet to be applied in still other musical contexts, as this jazz giant's expansive music evolved from the 'interim' Atlantic years into the final, long Impulse! period of cutting-edge experimentation. The initial shock of those earlier 'sheets of sound' would dissipate, and seem 'tame' by comparison -- or, perhaps, just 'inevitable' building blocks in the larger scheme of things ... and the legend would only grow.

Tracklist:

1. Giant Steps (4:43)
2. Cousin Mary (5:45)
3. Countdown (2:21)
4. Spiral (5:56)
5. Syeeda’s Song Flute (7:00)
6. Naima (4:21)
7. Mr. P.C. (6:57)
8. Giant Steps* (3:40)
9. Naima* (4:27)
10. Cousin Mary* (5:54)
11. Countdown* (7:02)
12. Syeeda’s Song Flute* (7:02)

 *CD only bonus tracks. Alternate takes.

The main takes of Giant Steps, Cousin Mary, Countdown, Spiral, Syeeda’s Song Flute (Tracks 1 through 5) and Mr. P.C. (Track 7) were recorded on May 4, 1959, with the following personnel: John Coltrane: Tenor Sax; Tommy Flanagan: Piano; Paul Chambers: Bass; Art Taylor: Drums.

The main take of Naima (Track 6) was recorded on December 2, 1959, with the following personnel: John Coltrane: Tenor Sax; Wynton Kelly: Piano; Paul Chambers: Bass; Jimmy Cobb: Drums.

The alternate takes of Giant Steps and Naima (Tracks 8 and 9) were recorded on April 1st, 1959, with the following personnel: John Coltrane: Tenor Sax; Cedar Walton: Piano; Paul Chambers: Bass; Lex Humphries: Drums.

The alternate takes of Cousin Mary, Countdown and Syeeda's Song Flute (Tracks 10, 11 and 12) were recorded on the same date with the same personnel.

3 comments:

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