John Coltrane - Giant Steps
Apr 24, 2020
The History of the Albums - n° 131

[I invite you to read my previous review on John Coltrane - Blue Train (1957), in order to better understand his life and this one]

To put you in context, although he was already very talented and popular among his peers, Blue Train is his first masterpiece that allowed him to settle permanently, but we know that he didn't stop there. From Blue Train to Giant Steps, a lot happened, and without making bad puns, Coltrane went even higher. To sum up, it is first important to point out that just a few months before Blue Train, Coltrane had been fired from Miles Davis' band because of his drug addiction, he got back on his feet and joined Thelonious Monk's band that was performing in the famous Five Spot Café. He learned a lot from this "experience" and from this period, which will be beneficial for the improvement of his playing and his career. In 1958, he rejoined Miles Davis' band, in parallel with his work as a leader. He will release a handful of albums, including Soultrane, but the rest is not so excellent. Besides, I analyse Coltrane's year 1958 as a year of "test and training", where he tries to produce new things, while trying to reach a level as good as on Blue Train. It should also be remembered that 1958 is not the most innovative year for jazz if we compare it to 1957 or 1959, although the modal jazz began to emerge. This is why, when 1959 arrives, what will happen and what he will experience this year will totally reboost him.

1959 is marked by 2 major innovations in jazz, the first one is modal jazz which is really going to be democratized and the second one is free jazz/avant-garde jazz, which has considerably changed things, especially the artistic approaches and the whole of the sonorities. In January, he first came back into the limelight by recording Bags & Trane with Milt Jackson, an album that unfortunately for listeners was not released until 1961. However, it is in March and April that everything will change when John Coltrane, who also participated in the creation of Milestones, will work on one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Kind of Blues. In addition to being a huge earthquake for the jazz universe, this album resounds like a kind of challenge that many artists will want to compare themselves to or be inspired by as an example of perfection. It is clear that in 1959, John Coltrane had not only regained his level, but he had also refined and transformed his playing to make it stronger and newer. I think Coltrane needed to learn more, not forgetting that he was young at that time. The influence he absorbed from Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor ou Milt Jackson is one of the elements that allowed him to take that giant step.

A little tired of the Prestige label's work with him, when he recorded Bags & Trane, Atlantic offered him a contract which he accepted. Giants Steps is thus his first album to be released under this label. Recorded in May and finished in December 1959 over several sessions, Giants Steps marks both Coltrane's personal victory and his return to grace in the role of leader, but above all this incredible masterpiece is one of the most beautiful saxophonist demonstrations of all time. He was accompanied by Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor in a quartet formation (except on Naima, where Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb are featured), with a production team composed of Nesuhi Ertegün, Tom Dowd and Nat Hentoff). Mainly hard bop, Giants Steps is mainly characterized by the integration of new techniques (sheets of sound, or Coltrane changes) which today have become so basic that they can be learned in music schools and still inspire many professional musicians. One has to imagine that his techniques have brought a lot of creative possibilities. In other words it is a musical revolution. Apart from that (which is already incredible), musically Giants Steps is not only a sophisticated and very dynamic hard bop album, it also has a modal approach and sound, with also an avant-garde direction, with improvisation that we can thus associate with free-jazz. He has the particularity to be composed only of his own compositions and like any masterpiece, he also becomes it by his cult tracks. As for example, the striking and wonderful ballad Naima, which hypnotizes me and draws me into its melancholy as if I was flowing little by little, or Giant Steps which the eponymous composition that best illustrates the famous techniques and the whole complexity of the work that he was able to bring throughout the album, but it is the best possible summary in almost 5 minutes. That's not all, there's also this composition called Countdown which is fascinating by its speed of execution, it even seems to accelerate voluntarily like on a computer, where the incredible virtuoso outroduction Mr. PC (Paul Chambers) comes to close the album, so as to make you full of it. Oh God. If I had to compare or even classify this album to Blue Train, I would say that Blue Train has been a solid base for the hard bop movement, but Giants Steps has been a solid base especially for saxophonists and other jazz musicians. For me the two are equal in terms of value (in a very, very close way), but I keep a preference for Blue Train, unless...

Related album I've reviewed:
> 1957 : John Coltrane – Blue Train
> 1958: Miles Davis - Milestones
> 1959 : Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
> 1959 : Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
> 1959 : Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Com
> 1959 : The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out

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