Released on January 27, 1960, John Coltrane‘s Giant Steps is one of the albums responsible for opening the gateway to my appreciation of jazz. Granted, it didn’t happen in 1960 – I was still more than a decade away from existing. But when I started to explore jazz in the mid-90s in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the art form, it was this album along with Miles‘s Sketches Of Spain and Mingus‘s Mingus Ah-Um that provided a springboard to what would become a five-year obsession with 60s and 70s jazz records.
The record opens with the upbeat & swinging title track, which calls to mind the Williams’s roaring-twenties hit “Royal Garden Blues” in certain passages. ‘Trane’s tenor is front-and-center from the first beat with Paul Chambers‘s bass running double-time in the background along with some hyperactive trap work from Lex Humphries. Cedar Walton takes a light-hearted piano solo in the second half of the song. It’s a testament to the joy and ebullience of this number that it has made its way into the pantheon of jazz standards.
The uptempo, major key arrangements continue through the next two numbers, “Cousin Mary” and “Countdown” – indeed, throughout most of the album – as does the frenetic hornwork. There was a time when I found performances like this noisy and distracting, the seemingly non-melodic saxophone work just a bunch of squirreling that came off as almost atonal. As my ears and mind opened more to the style of music, I was able to pick up themes running through the seeming cacaphony to the extent that now those are some of my favorite passages, where a couple of notes in sequence offer just enough hint of the overall theme that the result is amusement and engagement rather than my previous dismissiveness.
Other ensemble members get some lovely solos – particularly on “Spiral,” with Tommy Flanagan on keys leading into another excellent Chambers bass highlight – but, as one would expect, the main focus of the entire record is Coltrane’s expressive saxophone. While the rhythm section may be the driving force behind the momentum, John Coltrane is the unquestioned leader and guide. I’ve said before that, having never studied it formally – or even informally for that matter, beyond listening to it obsessively – I have a harder time writing about jazz because I’m not a musician and I don’t know all the proper phrases, don’t always know exactly what the players are up to at any given time; rather, for me, jazz, even more than the lyrically emotive pop music that I love, is about impressions and motion, feelings and nuance.
The penultimate track on the album is its lone ballad. “Naima,” a pretty tribute to his wife that flows with rich chords and melody. It is followed by “Mr. P.C.” which was written as a tribute to his longtime bassist Paul Chambers. The song’s high-spiritedness is a perfect bookend paired with the rollicking swing of the opening number as the band gallops through seven minutes of cheerful solos and exchanges.
There are slow, ruminative jazz albums that allow you to sit quietly in meditation while the music washes over you. This is not one of them. Giant Steps is a blissful freight train barreling down on you with utmost urgency – it demands that you either get out of the way or do your damnedest to keep up.