John Coltrane in 1960
Photo by Gai Terrell/Redferns
'Giant Steps' At 60: Why John Coltrane's Classic Hard Bop Album Is More Than A Jazz-School Worksheet
The title track to John Coltrane’s 1960 album Giant Steps is the bed of coals all jazz musicians must traverse barefoot. This key-toggling, high-BPM whirligig has whittled numberless rookies into kindling. Even poor Tommy Flanagan, the (extremely capable) pianist on the recording, is a deer in the headlights during his solo. This must be a drag to listen to, right? A homework assignment in music’s clothing? Coltrane’s way ahead of you. In fact, he agonized over that notion in the very packaging of Giant Steps.
"It may be that sometimes I’ve been trying to force all those extra progressions into a structure where they don’t fit, but this is all something I have to keep working on," the one-time GRAMMY winner and eight-time nominee frets to annotator Nat Hentoff on Giant Steps’ rear sleeve. "I'm worried that sometimes what I’m doing sounds just like academic exercises... I’m trying more and more to make it sound prettier."
Relax, Trane: Giant Steps is supremely accessible—which has a lot to do with his expanding mastery of melody. Which is even more on display by way of Giant Steps: 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, a two-disc boxed set available Sept. 18 via Rhino. The Deluxe Edition contains a fresh remaster of the album and eight already-released alternate takes; a Super Deluxe Edition, which contains all 28 of the surviving outtakes, will be available on digital platforms the same day.
"It’s the accessibility that stands out for me… despite how challenging some of the material is," his son Ravi Coltrane, a saxophonist in his own right, says in the boxed set’s press release. "It’s still all very listenable and very joyful." That joy takes many forms, from the familial ("Cousin Mary," "Syeeda’s Song Flute") to the cheeky ("Countdown," "Mr. P.C.") to romantic joy ("Naima").
Coltrane recorded Giant Steps in 1959 with Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor at the now-defunct Atlantic Studios in midtown Manhattan. (Pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb played on “Naima”; pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Lex Humphries appear on a few alternate takes.) The music they made doesn’t just provide fodder for woodshedders; by running the gamut of emotion, it lays the foundation for Trane’s next masterpiece, 1965’s A Love Supreme.
Three of Giant Steps’ cuts were named after Coltrane’s family members—his cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander, then-wife Juanita Naima Coltrane (née Grubbs) and 10-year-old stepdaughter Syeeda Coltrane. Alexander grew up with Coltrane and, after his 1967 passing, hosted backyard concerts at the home they shared; her community later crowned her "the mother of jazz in Philadelphia" before her death in 2019.
"She’s a very earthy, folksy, swinging person," Coltrane says of Alexander on the album sleeve. "The figure is riff-like and although the changes are not conventional blues progressions, I tried to retain the flavor of the blues." Indeed, "Cousin Mary" evokes strolling down the street on a summer day—and Coltrane’s subtly unorthodox chord sequence keeps this swinging tune from sounding pat.
The real-life Syeeda, who was born Antonia Andrews, was Naima’s child from a previous marriage; her namesake tune has the feeling of a schoolyard game until Trane leaves the station for his solo. "When I ran across it on the piano, it reminded me of her because it sounded like a happy child’s song,” Coltrane recalls on the album sleeve.
Those lighter moments aside, Giant Steps often genuinely rocks; this artist didn’t influence Jimi Hendrix for nothing. And "Countdown," a look-what-I-can-do showcase, is essentially the moment where he lights his sax on fire. While it’s arguably the most disposable track on the album, "Countdown" is charming for its brazenness. As for "Mr. P.C.," a barrelling homage to bassist Chambers, there’s only one thing to say: If the hair on the back of your neck isn’t erect by the end, your capacity for wonder might be stripped out.
Plus, the title track may have been an attempt to best another tenor master. “I think ‘Giant Steps’ was a byproduct of what Trane attempted to do in the Miles Davis tune called ‘Tune Up’,” jazz-blues multi-instrumentalist Roger Boykin said in a 2019 episode of the Songs of Note podcast.
"I’d assume that he did that because of a rivalry he had with Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins had recorded ‘Tune Up’ and he played it so well, man… I think because of that competition between these two giants of the tenor saxophone, Coltrane attempted to do something even more brilliant.” (Boykin also cites the turnaround in pianist Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and the major-third motion in Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?” as probable influences.)
But Coltrane doesn’t spend all of Giant Steps in fighting mode; far from it. The lovers’ sigh “Naima” is one of the most captivatingly minimal compositions he ever wrote. In the years after the couple’s 1963 split (they divorced in 1965), Coltrane began to tinker with “Naima” — whether adding pensive curlicues on Blue World (recorded in 1964, released in 2019) or flipping it upside-down onstage with his partner-in-crime Eric Dolphy on clarinet. But this version of "Naima" stands tallest; few love ballads sizzle like it.
Giant Steps was acclaimed upon its release. Down Beat proclaimed "You can tag this LP as one of the important ones." The Jazz Review insisted even non-jazz listeners would love it: "Everyone, even those who have had reservations about Coltrane, should hear this set."
And after successfully blending artistic intrepidity and hummable appeal on Giant Steps, Coltrane committed himself—at least momentarily—to chasing tunes first and foremost. "Now that I’m trying to write melody first, the melody will be that more important," he later told interviewer Alan Grant. "Eventually I may derive some melodies which maybe have some quality, some lasting value of some sort."
As was his wont, Coltrane was being overly modest to the press; if he’d hung up his horn after Giant Steps, these seven jewel-like tunes would still have established him as a melodic master. If you can deconstruct and examine Giant Steps on a harmonic level, by all means, dive in—it’s a thing of practically Einsteinian mathematical beauty.
But is that knowledge requisite to enjoying it? Absolutely not. Really, the only work you have to do is on your volume control. Your life will be a lot more giant for it.