Giant Steps…Going Where?

I must preface this piece by saying goodbye to the ones I love because what I will say here will be considered blasphemy by many and as a result, I may be burned at the stake.

For years I have been exhausted by the perpetual elevation of the tune “Giant Steps.” Unfortunately, it has been a rite of passage for several generations of jazz musicians. Although it has some interesting harmonic movements, they are neutered by a non-narrative approach: each subsequent chorus is more of the same. For me, speaking from a standpoint of great storytelling, Coltrane’s unpoetic fourteen-chorus solo is one more example of the emperor’s new notes, where masterful technical craftmanship trumps musicality and dramatic story telling.

Giant Steps should be relegated – in the music community’s mind – to what Coltrane actually considered the tune to be: an exercise, not a major paragon of composition, nor a particularly inventive solo. 

It’s curious to hear excellent improvisors often succumb to a Pavlovian response to playing very fast tempos with one rhythmic gear, eighth notes. Coltrane played what I call consonant rhythms. The solo just mirrored the tempo and missed the opportunity for dissonant rhythms (against the tempo with polyrhythms). Or how about some long tones? God forbid that.

This tune and performance set a low bar for soul and, once again, highlight what critics of jazz bemoan, an endless filibuster of nonstop eighth notes. This is neither a major composition and musical performance, nor is it a major artistic statement from Coltrane.

I do have great admiration for Coltrane. He was a spectacular musician, who not only was a virtuoso sax player and soulful composer, but also invented his own language (with help from his teacher, Dennis Sandole, and from Nicolas Slonimsky, whose book, Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns was a huge influence on Coltrane’s vocabulary).

When you listen to Coltrane’s solo on the “The Promise” you will hear some of his best playing, featuring very simple melodies as questions and incredible chromatic releases as answers. Here he always refreshes his musical gestures, which he doesn’t do on “Giant Steps.”

Before he recorded the tune Giant Steps, he spent six months woodshedding it, as he did with the rest of the cuts on the Giant Steps album. On this record he was sharing his six months of practicing, but he did not develop, in an alchemical transformation, a solo that went anywhere.

We can learn endlessly from Trane, just as we can from what Dave Liebman calls the trunk of the jazz tree: major language changers and creators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Trane teaches us two major lessons: a devout work ethic and the creation of his own language which is much more profound than anything on “Giant Steps.”

Jazz musicians need to aspire to a much higher level of artistry and expression instead of just playing an exercise at home that continues to sound like an exercise in the recording studio, or on the bandstand. A successful great exercise doesn’t stay an exercise; it must turn into a great expressive tool. If it doesn’t, all that is presented is a public performance of practicing. It is equivalent to going to play a baseball game and forgetting to bring a bat.

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