“Giant Steps,” saxophonist John Coltrane’s influential composition, became the title cut of his first recording as a leader at Atlantic Records.* Most of the Giant Steps album was recorded in May 1959 with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums; however, it wasn’t released until early 1960.
Coltrane had recorded an earlier version of “Giant Steps” in April 1959 with Cedar Walton on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Lex Humphries on drums. However, he was not pleased with the results and the session was shelved and not released until after his death.
The preservation of the early session is important to understanding the development of the tune which is analyzed in depth in books by Lewis Porter, Alyn Shipton, and Carl Woideck. According to Porter in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, “‘Giant Steps’ was, after all, more than a tune that used third relations--it was a thorough study, an etude, on those relationships.” In Enjoying Jazz Shipton says, “‘Giant Steps’ ...was the antithesis of simplicity. Despite being no more than a compact sixteen measures in length, it is an extraordinarily dense and complete composition in terms of the interlocking of its melodic and harmonic content.” And in The John Coltrane Companion: Five Decades of Commentary Woideck says, “Its sixteen-measure chord progression begins with eight measures of root movement in thirds and closes with eight measures of ii-V-I progressions. It has since become a test piece for jazz musicians and is required fare in jazz education programs.”
According to Porter, “By several accounts, Coltrane had been working on ‘Giant Steps’ progressions well before the recording dates.” Davis had dismissed Coltrane from his group in 1957 because of his drug and alcohol abuse. Coltrane returned home to Philadelphia where he kicked his drug habits and underwent a spiritual awakening before rejoining Davis in 1958. Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner has said that it was during his time in Philadelphia that Coltrane composed “Giant Steps.”
In March and April of 1959, just weeks before the Giant Steps session, Coltrane recorded another highly influential album with Miles Davis’ group: Kind of Blue. According to Porter these two albums, representing two very different approaches, became among the most famous jazz albums ever made. Davis took a modal approach to improvisation on his album, eliminating chord progressions, whereas Coltrane was developing new chordal concepts based on his interest in third-related chord movement. Gary Giddins puts it succinctly in his book Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century: “Davis winnowed bop’s harmonies to encourage original improvisations, and Coltrane maximized them for the same reason.”
In his book Shipton quotes Coltrane’s son Ravi, also a saxophonist, as saying that Coltrane used the “Giant Steps” progression in many of his later recordings. “So Giant Steps can be seen as the beacon that shone forward over Coltrane’s most influential work of the 1960s and the freer playing that followed. Continuing to use ideas from his solos on the sequence, he worked to simplify the structure, though not the texture, of his accompaniment. Even when he eventually discarded the harmonic clarity of McCoy Tyner and the metrical precision of Elvin Jones for his final quartet with Alice Coltrane on piano and Rashied Ali on drums, he continued to explore aspects of the Giant Steps sequence in his playing.”
Coltrane’s pianists McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan recorded “Giant Steps” several times. Vocalist Meredith d’Ambrosio recorded it with her own lyric in 1985. It’s been recorded by the big bands of Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and Maria Schneider; saxophonists Kenny Garrett, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Jon Gordon; harmonica player Toots Thielemans; pianist Dave Burrell; and bassist Ray Brown. Since 2000 it has been featured by guitarists Pat Metheny and Vic Juris, pianists Jon-Michel Pilc, Don Friedman, Taylor Eigsti, and Michel Camilo, trumpeter Claudio Roditi, and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.
* Jazz bassist Cody Adams comments:
While Giant Steps was Coltrane’s first recording as a leader for Atlantic Records, it was far from being his overall first recording as a leader. His actual first album as a leader (which features a fantastic rendition of the Dennis/Adair standard “Violets For Your Furs”, #728 on the JazzStandards.com list) was released three years earlier on Prestige Records.