Countdown: A Critical Analysis of Covers

The next song I’ll write about is “Countdown,” the shortest song on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps album at just over 2 minutes long. “Countdown” is derived from Miles Davis’ “Tune-Up,” and despite its short length in the version included on Giant Steps, the tune has inspired a number of later musicians (though I’ll say up-front that I don’t think the Beyonce song is related to Coltrane’s tune).

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!

First, the Coltrane version with John Coltrane, Art Taylor, Tommy Flanagan, and Paul Chambers from Giant Steps. A brief drum solo introduction with Art Taylor clearly playing the “Countdown” melody on his drum kit leads to a drum/sax duet starting around 0:30, with Coltrane’s signature sheets of sound in full effect here over a fast tempo. The song is half over before the bass or piano are heard, and Coltrane’s sax soloing doesn’t even pause as his accompaniment comes into the picture. The melody of the song isn’t played outright until 2 minutes into the song, and the song essentially ends by playing the head (where Paul Chambers’ bass comes up noticeably in the mix. Quite an arrangement – rather than head-solo-solo-solo-head, it’s essentially solo…head if we ignore the opening drum statements. Nonetheless, the melody is catchy as all hell and it seems to have made a big impression on jazz musicians that came after this.

First I’ll mention Brad Mehldau’s piano trio version of the tune. He included “Countdown” on his debut album as leader, Introducing Brad Mehldau, from 1995. This version has Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. The band starts by stating the head of the tune over Jorge Rossy’s triplets, and after a quick pair of chords around 0:25, Mehldau’s piano solo begins. Very, very different from Coltrane’s sheets of sound, Mehldau moves smoothly all over the keyboard during his solo with great ride cymbal-heavy drumming from Jorge Rossy and bass accompaniment from Larry Grenadier. He references the “Countdown” melody in this solo more than Coltrane’s solo on the original; most of this solo seems to be variations on the original melody. Around 2:30, Jorge Rossy takes a brief drum solo, after which the band comes back together and states the song’s head, playing it fairly straight until the end of the tune. The Mehldau trio has added some structure to the song (now head-solo-head, essentially).

Mehldau has continued to play “Countdown,” and included it in his 2008 show in Germany, now with Jeff Ballard on drums instead of Jorge Rossy. This version (starting around 35:50 in the youtube video) starts with a great abstract piano solo that slowly, slowly builds to become “Countdown,” taking the idea of variations on the “Countdown” theme that he used on Introducing… to its logical extreme here. Is there another pianist out there who can build a theme like this? Listen to the faintest hints of the tune around 36:50; he continues to hint at the song’s theme while never diving in until around 38:45, at which point the trio starts the song in earnest together, stating the song’s head. Mehldau takes a one-handed piano solo around 39:15; Grenadier’s bass playing in this live version is significantly more up-front than in the 1995 version above and Jeff Ballard’s driving drums push the group forward more than on the version included on Introducing…. Mehldau’s solo comes back to the theme around 41:30, followed by an amazing bass solo from Larry Grenadier. There is some great group interplay around 43:00 coming out of Grenadier’s solo with nice interlocked descending lines from the bass and piano… the band keeps up this group interaction with very loose time, while maintaining the forward momentum. The virtuosic group interplay around the “Countdown” theme continues until about 47:15 when the band returns to play the theme straight. God, listen to Jeff Ballard’s drums behind the group around 47:40! The song ends shortly after this section. The Mehldau trio has hugely expanded on this tune, it is their own here. Amazing, amazing playing from everyone in the trio here.

Gilad Hekselman has also included “Countdown” on his 2009 album Words Unspoken with Joe Martin on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. This version, like the Mehldau trio’s version, starts with a trio statement of the song’s theme. In the Hekselman trio, Marcus Gilmore’s snare drum explosion starts the song, then Gilmore punctuates each note to create a very cool stuttering effect in the song’s opening. The trio moves into a guitar solo after the opening, with Hekselman’s fluid lines over the pulsing drums and Joe Martin’s supporting bassline. Around 1:30, Gilmore’s drums pick up the forward motion considerably and the walking bassline responds. Around 3:15, the trio goes into a start-stop, stuttering arrangement. Very tight. Then comes Marcus Gilmore’s unaccompanied drum solo, before the “Countdown” theme returns around 5:00 with Gilmore’s huge snare pops accentuating this part. This version has more in common with the Mehldau trio’s arrangement of “Countdown” than with Coltrane’s original, but the Hekselman trio has definitely added its own twists to the song.

Gilad’s trio also includes “Countdown” in its live sets. In November 2011, the Hekselman trio (again with Marcus Gilmore and Joe Martin) played “Countdown” in France. The playing in this live version seems a little looser than on Words Unspoken. Interesting floating feeling starting around 0:15 with what feels like nice interplay between all three musicians, though we’ve moved into Hekselman’s guitar solo here. He leaves plenty of space in his phrasing for Gilmore’s drum fills (check around 1:45) and has (as always) some great fluid lines. Around 3:45 there’s another cool floating section very much sustained by Marcus Gilmore’s ride cymbal, then Hekselman digs back in. Some cool ascending lines around 4:40 that Hekselman likes to throw in there… starting around 5:00, he sort of teases around the “Countdown” melody obliquely; again around 5:40. Great group interplay around 6:15-6:45 or so before moving into Gilmore’s drums and a cool stop-start arrangement. Gilmore’s drum solo proper starts around 7:20. Interesting march rhythm shows up around 9:00. A bit before 11:00, Gilmore seems to be playing around the “Countdown” rhythm, and shortly thereafter Hekselman and Martin come back in for the head. A similar arrangement to the version on Words Unspoken, with expanded solos. It would be nice to hear Martin’s bass a little higher in the mix, but it looks like this was captured on an iphone or something like that, so we’ll have to take what we can get.

Drummer Julio Barreto’s 2002 album Iyabó included a version of “Countdown” featuring Ravi Coltrane on saxophone. This starts off sounding very fusion-y with electric bass over some breakbeat-sounding drums and an unfortunately dated-sounding electric piano. Around 1 minute, the “Countdown” theme comes in with the horns and electric piano. A trumpet solo from Carlos Puig starting around 1:30 leads to Ravi Coltrane’s sax solo around 2:30. The electric bass under these solos works well actually, and locks in very tightly with the drums. Around 3:30, the theme is back and then the band has a vamp starting around 4:00 with some nice interplay between sax and trumpet. I can’t say I really love the sound of this version (the electric bass and electric piano didn’t age very well, to my ears), but if you’ve been digging on the recent stuff from Thundercat, this might be up your alley. This shows still another take on Coltrane’s composition, based on the “Countdown” melody with ample additions and changes to the song structure, very different from the Coltrane, Mehldau, and Hekselman arrangements.

On his recent album Roads and Codes, trumpeter Ian Carey (along with Adam Shulman on piano, Fred Randolph on bass, Jon Arkin on drums, and Kasey Knudsen on sax) features a tune he’s titled “Count Up.” Similar to the way that The Billy Hart Quartet and Omer Avital have done with “Giant Steps,” Carey has disassembled “Countdown” to create a new composition based on the original’s chord changes. The tune starts with the trumpet and sax stating the knotty melody in unison over the drums before the piano and bass join in. Carey’s trumpet solo starts around 0:30 – some very good, straight-ahead jazz, nice comping from Shulman over a walking bassline. At about 2:10, Jon Arkin takes an unaccompanied drum solo before the head returns at about 2:45 until the song’s close. An interesting take on the Coltrane original with a nice trumpet and drum solo in the middle section. The “Countdown” melody is not very evident in here, but try singing the original melody over the new melody on “Count Up” and the fact that this is derived from “Countdown” becomes obvious.

Starting with a 2:20-long song that is largely a platform for Coltrane’s sax solo on Giant Steps, it is amazing to see how the song has been pulled in all of these different directions, with new structures added and new wrinkles found in the song. Next time I will write about something not originally found on Coltrane’s Giant Steps album, I promise.

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!