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Syeeda's Song Flute: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

Having looked earlier at some variations on "Giant Steps" (to which I'll also add here Freddie Hubbard's "Dear John") and "Countdown", I'll take a look at some different versions of "Syeeda's Song Flute", also from Coltrane's 1960 album Giant Steps.

"Syeeda's Song Flute" was written for Coltrane’s daughter, and the catchy melody does have a bit of a children’s song feel to it. The re-release of Giant Steps includes both the originally released version of the song as well as an alternate version that was recorded on the same day with the same musicians (Coltrane on sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums). For this listener, the alternate version is where it’s at - Flanagan’s piano solo is fantastic and the drums sound better on the alternate version. Coltrane’s sax solo on the original release is probably better, but he sounds great on the alternate version as well. So. The tune starts with a simple opening and the drums panned hard left on this version before Coltrane comes in with the tune’s melody. At about 0:24, they move to the B section and then at 0:45 to a little bridge that leads into Coltrane’s sax solo. "Syeeda’s" is one of the less complex tunes on Giant Steps (I’m sure that could be argued with - feel free), and the band rides the groove nicely here, with Coltrane tossing out great melodic riffs over a walking bass and Flanagan’s piano comping. At just after 2:30, Flanagan’s piano solo begins. This is the reason I feel like the alternate version is the superior one - Flanagan sounds so relaxed and groovy on this as he stretches out. Particularly in headphones, this sounds great with Paul Chambers’ bass panned hard right and Art Taylor’s drums hard left. Chambers begins a bass solo at about 4:30, and he sounds great himself, backed by Flanagan’s subtle comping and Taylor’s drums. At 5:40 or so, Taylor moves to his ride cymbal as Chambers digs into his solo. Coltrane returns at 6:05 with a skeletal version of the tune’s melody, then plays through the melody outright starting at about 6:40, bringing the song to a close. Great, catchy stuff and a rare example of a Coltrane tune where the highlight (to this listener) is the piano player, with Tommy Flanagan putting down a fantastic solo in the middle of this. The original version of the tune is also included here, which is also a great, great tune with a probably superior sax solo from Coltrane and an opening riff that would be emulated in some later versions (keep reading...).

Both Art Taylor and Tommy Flanagan would revisit "Syeeda’s" later as bandleaders. On Taylor’s 1960 album A.T.’s Delight, released not long after Giant Steps, Taylor is joined by Dave Burns on trumpet, Stanley Turrentine on sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Paul Chambers on bass, back from the original Giant Steps album. Taylor’s version starts similarly to the version on Giant Steps, but at a slightly faster tempo. Turrentine’s sax brings in the main melody, then the sax and trumpet play in unison for the B section and the breakdown. At about 0:50, Burns takes the first solo on trumpet. It’s a nice laid back feel despite the faster tempo, with Taylor on his ride cymbal, Kelly’s great piano comping, and Chambers’ walking bass. The trumpet solo is followed by a sax solo starting around 1:35, and they keep this relaxed feel going. At 2:20, the lead is passed back to Burns’ trumpet and he takes another fine solo here. Turrentine takes another sax solo starting at 3:00. Then at 3:40, Kelly takes a piano solo. As nice as Flanagan’s piano solo is on Giant Steps, there’s no denying Kelly’s playing here. He takes a second chorus, stretching out and improvising something lovely - nothing to complain about with Kelly on piano and Chambers on bass. At 5:15, Chambers takes a bass solo as Taylor moves to his hi-hat. Some light comping from Kelly in the background and the bass solo leads back to the tune’s head just before 6:00, again taken by Turrentine’s sax and joined by the trumpet during the B section and breakdown. They play through the head and bring it to a close. Interesting setup with Turrentine and Burns trading choruses followed by a longer piano solo here. A nice version of the tune with much the same feel as the original.

Two decades after Giant Steps and A.T.’s Delight, Tommy Flanagan re-visited "Syeeda’s" on his 1982 album also titled Giant Steps (where he also re-visited "Giant Steps", "Mr. P.C.", "Naima", and "Cousin Mary" from the original Giant Steps album). Flanagan is joined by George Mraz on bass and Al Foster on drums here. Flanagan’s version starts with the same simple riff at the opening and a tempo that’s a bit faster than the original. Foster’s drums are busier than Taylor’s on either of the versions above, giving this version more drive. Flanagan’s piano takes the melody starting at about 0:10 and they move through the head, then into a piano solo starting at 0:45 or so over a nice walking bassline and swinging drums. As in the opening, the solo portion has a good bit of momentum behind it with Foster’s drums pushing the trio forward and accenting Flanagan’s solo phrases. At 2:10, Mraz takes a bass solo coming out of Flanagan’s piano solo. The 1982 recording puts the bass higher in the mix than the 1960 recordings above, and the solo benefits from that. After a brief bass solo, the piano returns at 2:55 and Flanagan continues to improvise over the walking bass and swinging drums. At 3:30, Foster’s drums get the spotlight while the bass and piano outline the "Syeeda’s" changes. It’s a tom-heavy drum solo and then the trio playing returns at about 4:15. At 5:00, the head returns and Foster moves to his hi-hat. They play through the head and then bring this piano trio version of the tune to a close. Great trio playing, with Flanagan dancing all over the tune and some fine accompaniment and soloing from Mraz and Foster.

Archie Shepp released his Four for Trane album in 1964, just four years after Coltrane’s Giant Steps, with his versions of "Cousin Mary", "Naima", and "Syeeda’s Song Flute", all from Coltrane’s album. (The cover shows Coltrane looking over Shepp’s shoulder as Shepp sits with his sax, giving an idea of the relationship between Coltrane and Shepp.) Shepp is on sax and is joined by John Tchichai also on sax, Roswell Rudd on trombone, Alan Shorter on flugelhorn, Reggie Workman on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums. Shepp’s version starts with a theme that was obviously derived from Coltrane’s tune, but is extensively re-harmonized. Shepp has added lots of ornamentation to the theme, but at about 0:35 hits on something close to the standard "Syeeda’s" theme. This leads to a sax solo from Shepp starting just before 1:00, and Shepp jumps right in, digging into his instrument. Catchy little theme at about 1:30 as the solo moves forward. Some trombone accompaniment behind the sax starting around 2:00 or so and just before 2:30 they’re really onto something with Workman’s bass doing some great stuff behind the horns, locked in with Moffett’s drums. Nice trombone swell at about 3:15 behind the continuing sax solo - this whole thing has a fantastic group feel, crunchy stuff. Rudd’s trombone comes to the front at about 3:45, with a bit of accompaniment from Shepp. The two horns are nicely interlocked here, really getting into this, while Rudd is still taking the lead in this part. Shepp hints pretty closely at the "Syeeda’s" theme at about 5:10 as Moffett’s drums are providing some great backing here. At 6:00, the trombone solo is coming to a close and they move to an opening for bass and drums. Workman takes an excellent solo, hitting on a dissonant note at about 6:30 and building off of that. Bass solos can drop a tune’s momentum, but that is definitely not a concern here as Workman and Moffett remain locked together pushing the tune. At about 7:20 the drums start to get busier and then at 7:40 or so the horns return with Shepp’s re-configured "Syeeda’s" theme from the opening. They play through the altered head and finish the tune. Essential. The whole thing here - Shepp’s re-configuration of Coltrane’s original tune, the group dynamic, the interplay between Workman/Moffett and Shepp/Rudd - is perfect and builds on Coltrane’s original to make something much, much more than a cover of "Syeeda’s." Wow.

Medeski, Martin, and Wood’s 1993 album It’s a Jungle in Here included their take on "Syeeda’s Song Flute" (they also kept the tune in rotation for their live shows). They start with a funky backbeat and bassline that is modeled on the original opening of "Syeeda’s" on Giant Steps, but with an extra note in there to thicken up the bass part. Medeski’s organ comes in with the theme at about 0:10 as that bass part continues. Nice organ swells for the B section, then back to the main theme, and then some drum breakdowns underneath the bridge, leading into Medeski’s organ solo that starts around 0:50, beginning with a quote from the opening of Coltrane’s sax solo on the original version of the tune and then moving into an improvisation over the backbeat and Wood’s fine bass here. It’s not exactly a walking bass throughout, but Wood has moved away from that opening bass part at this point. Big organ chords at about 2:00 and then a nice, sort of messy run at about 2:15 as Medeski digs in here. Cool descending chords from Medeski just before 3:00, and then at 3:25 the organ drops out for a bass solo from Wood. The opening of this solo is pretty fantastic - mildly dissonant stuff based on the opening notes from the bass. Wood then digs in and puts together a melodic solo full of great bass themes - check out 4:25-4:30 or so and mentally loop that up. Another really nice part at about 5:00 just as the bass solo comes to a close. The organ returns for the "Syeeda’s" head, which they play through in much the same way as the opening. MMW’s take on "Syeeda’s Song Flute" is closely based on Coltrane’s, despite the funkier drumming and different instrumentation - Medeski’s organ solo even opens with a quote from Coltrane’s sax improvisation. This works really well with the backbeat from Billy Martin.

Conrad Herwig’s 1999 album Osteology included his version of "Syeeda’s Song Flute." Herwig’s trombone is joined here by Steve Davis, also on trombone, Dave Kikoski on piano, James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. This version starts with the familiar simple bass/piano opening over hi-hats. A single trombone starts the head, then is joined starting at the B section by the second trombone. Starting at about 0:50, there is an interesting unison line played by both trombones that echoes the opening of Coltrane’s sax solo on the original (Medeski’s organ solo above also used that line). At 1:15, they return to the "Syeeda’s" theme, with Kikoski improvising behind the horns. A trombone solo starts around 1:35 (I’m not clear on whether this is Herwig or Davis), with a swinging rhythm section backing it. Nice stuff, with the piano comping landing perfectly - check the part around 2:30. At 3:00, Watts’ drums are moving along something lovely and the first trombone solo comes to a close with the second trombone taking the lead. Another fine, melodic solo with a great rhythm section backing it. At about 4:30, this second trombone solo comes to a close and Kikoski takes a piano solo. Watts’ drumming is really key throughout this version of the tune, pushing the band along and keeping the energy high as the soloists pass the baton. Great piano solo from Kikoski. Just before 6:00, the trombones add some accents behind the end of the piano solo that echo the bass/piano opening of the tune. Then at about 6:15, they return to the head and finish the tune over Watts’ drum rolls. A catchy, swinging version of "Syeeda’s Song Flute" with an unusual front line of two trombones and the interesting touch of Kikoski’s piano improvising behind the main melody. Fine solos all around and the rhythm section here is really excellent.

Saxophonist James Carter’s organ trio recently played a version of "Syeeda’s Song Flute" at Jazz a la Villette in Paris. Carter is joined by Gerard Gibbs on organ and Leonard King on drums. They start with the familiar opening riff, here taken by the organ, then Carter adds some saxophone accents before moving into the head. Carter moves into a sax solo backed by the swinging drums and organ. Fine playing from the trio, some cool straight-ahead stuff with tasty organ chords. At about 2:00 here, Carter’s sax reaches for some high notes as his solo moves forward. "Rhapsody in Blue" quote at about 4:15 from Carter. At about 5:30, Gibbs takes an organ solo after the sax solo comes to a finish. Just after 6:00, King’s drums drop out, leaving just the organ. The drums return after about a minute of unaccompanied soloing from Gibbs. He builds up some nice mini-themes here at the end of his solo as he moves slowly back toward the "Syeeda’s" theme. At about 8:30, Carter returns for the head, playing it pretty loose here rhythmically and swinging the phrases at the close. They play through the head and finish this version of the tune. Fine playing from everyone, a good straight-ahead version of "Syeeda’s Song Flute."

...And one last version from Matt Wilson’s WeBop: A Family Jazz Party that I won’t really go into except to say that, you know, here it is:

"Syeeda’s Song Flute" has one of the catchiest melodies from John Coltrane’s Giant Steps album, but has not been as heavily covered as some other tunes from that album. Still, some excellent versions of "Syeeda’s" have been done post-Giant Steps. Maybe most notable is the 1964 version from Archie Shepp, just four years after the original and a completely original work in its own right. As a straight-ahead jazz vehicle, it served Art Taylor, Tommy Flanagan, Conrad Herwig, and James Carter well, and it works great as a vehicle for MMW’s heavy grooves. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a little bit of time now and then.