Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Coltrane: Giant Steps

This is the album, recorded in May and December 1959 and released on Atlantic Records, that fully established John Coltrane as a masterful player, composer and bandleader, when it was released in January 1960.  On the heels of Miles Davis's Kind oi Blue, on which Coltrane was a stellar contributor, and out the same year as Ornette Coleman's revolutionary Free Jazz, Giant Steps was one of the indicators of where jazz was heading in the new decade.

The paths (there are almost always several) would not be easy to trod, as old-school critics howled in derision and anger about what the so-called "avant garde" was doing, while clinging to the old verities of bop, hard bop and the preexistng styles that were being challenged.

Coltrane, universally known as a kind, gentle, spiritual man not given to contentious arguments about anything, became the object of vitriol and scorn totally unfair to both the man and musician.  More than a half-century later, it seems quaint and laughable to imagine Coltrane's "giant steps" towards a different way of playing jazz being a threat to anyone.

The damnations were enough, evidently, so that a series of albums through 1964 showed Trane moving more frequently into more melodic and traditional territory, through "My Favorite Things", albums with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman, the recording of classic standards, and right up to the solemn and gorgeous Crescent.

But, it was first Giant Steps, then elements of the remarkable Africa/Brass, and especially the staggering Live at the Village Vanguard (its complete package gives the fan three additional discs of glorious playing at that December 1961 engagement) that invited the withering scrutiny of critics, most of whom couldn't play an instrument, compose or do anything that gave them the mantle and aura of authority they assumed.

So, the music.  The original seven-track album has classic after classic. The mind-blowing speed, precision and technical mastery of the title track is legendary and it has been a challenge for sax players ever since to take the tune on and do what they can with it.  "Cousin Mary," named for Coltrane's relation and keeper of the flame when it came to his Philadelphia home being a historic site, was long a standard in Trane's repertoire.

"Syeeda's Song Flute," named after Trane's adopted daughter by his first wife, is another joyous piece.  "Mr. P.C.," a tribute to longtime Davis and Coltrane bassist Paul Chambers, is one of the more recognizable melodies in Trane's discography and a live favorite for years.

Finally, there's "Naima," in honor of the composer's first wife, and simply one of the finest ballads, not only of Coltrane's work, but of anyone's.  Like "My Favorite Things," it was a standard piece even when the music went totally free and to hear a version of the song from, say, the second Village Vanguard album in 1966, compared to the earlier one from Giant Steps is an interesting way to hear just how much Coltrane's sound developed over those five years.

Trane was still about a year away from solidifying his band with the "classic quartet" of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.  He had Chambers as his anchor at the bass, Art Taylor on drums and Tommy Flanagan at the piano.  For "Naima," drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly, both from the Davis band and Kind of Blue, brought their soft, sensitive touches to the classic.  Then, for "Giant Steps," Lex Humphries was at the kit and Cedar Walton played piano.  All of these musicians were excellent at their instruments, though there has been much said especially about the struggles some had with the speed and complexity of some of the tunes, particularly the title track.

But, Coltrane kept trying other musicians on subsequent records until he first secured Tyner, then Jones and, finally, Garrison and the "classic quartet" went on that momentous four-year run that culminated with A Love Supreme in 1965.  Still, even if Trane's greatest work was in that 1961-65 period with that quartet, Giant Steps, following from the great start of 1957's Blue Train, was the album that put Coltrane in the front ranks of jazz's greatest players, writers and leaders.

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