When you hear a person say, “I don’t like jazz,” they might be referring to the song “Giant Steps.”
Here’s why: “Giant Steps” is like a Jackson Pollock painting. To the average person, a Pollock painting looks like something his or her kid could paint. An appreciator of art, however, can see the depth, rhythm, colour choices and complicated distribution of the swirls of paint as inspired and informed choices of a genius. Pollock created masterpieces – for appreciators of art. “Giant Steps” is a masterpiece – for appreciators of jazz.
Let me try to explain it
“Giant Steps” was written by the most celebrated jazz saxophonist ever: John Coltrane. Coltrane had an understanding of music like Albert Einstein had an understanding of the universe. Coltrane realized that he could take conventional chords for a song and substitute related chords for them that would completely change the original sound of, and part of, a song.
Here’s the trick: substitute chords are harmonically related to the chords they are replacing. In other words, they have some of the same qualities as the original chords. By replacing the original chords with substitute chords, the melody of a song will still be supported.
You’re still lost? You’re not alone
Put it this way: “Giant Steps” is actually a cycle of chords that are repeated over and over again. The reason it might sound so weird is that it is written in three keys; most songs are written in one.
Music like “Giant Steps” is complicated. While recording the song for the album of the same name, even some of the musicians couldn’t quite get the knack of it. It took pianist Tommy Flanagan many attempts to get the song under his fingers. You can hear it in his solo on the recording where Flanagan stumbles and feels around in the dark like he’s looking for his glasses (about three minutes into the song). But he soldiers on. In another recording session another piano player, Cedar Walton, took a pass on even attempting a solo because of the song’s complexity.
The legacy of ‘Giant Steps’
“Giant Steps” was not only the name of a song, but it became the title of the first album Coltrane recorded for Atlantic Records. Atlantic agreed to pay Coltrane $7,000 per year as a guarantee, for as long as he was with the record company. That was in 1959. Today, $7,000 would translate to just over $54,000.
Regardless of the payday, “Giant Steps” is considered one of the most important jazz albums and songs in history. It still challenges jazz musicians and the average person today with its complexity. But like a Pollock painting, it’s OK if you don’t understand it. Just be careful not to paint all jazz with the same brush as “Giant Steps.”
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on May 08, 2012