“Giant Steps” for Jazz Kind: A Critical Analysis of Covers

For my next essay, I’ll look at John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Certainly not an obscure piece from an unknown performer’s catalog, but interesting in that (so far as I know) there is no recording of Coltrane himself playing this tune outside of the album of the same name. This is something to listen to, and listen to, and listen to, until you know what is coming next throughout the song.

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Coltrane is joined by Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Absolute classic:

Now, there are all kinds of technical reasons to appreciate the absolute beauty that is “Giant Steps” – the intervals, the way the chords move around, the ii-V-I changes moving up in major thirds, all the possibilities for chord substitutions, etc… all that is true. But not what I’ll write about here. That is the type of thing, I suppose, that has led certain young jazz artists to call this song boring (without naming names…). The reason I’m writing about “Giant Steps” is that it is a great tune on Coltrane’s album that has led to even more great innovations from current artists.

Before I get to that, a quick aside about Tommy Flanagan’s solo that has been seen as less important than Coltrane’s huge sax solo on this tune. I don’t know, I always liked the piano solo. It feels good to me and the last phrase especially. Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Check out Robert Glasper at the end of Mike Moreno’s solo in “Gingerbread Boy” (also played in the set led by Kendrick Scott captured by WBGO (you’ve got to listen to this set), and compare with the end of Tommy Flanagan’s solo. Not a perfect match, but Glasper’s line sounds at least influenced by Flanagan’s to my ears.

Interestingly, Tommy Flanagan did re-visit “Giant Steps” later in his career. Also interestingly and Coltrane-related, McCoy Tyner plays one hell of a solo piano version.

McCoy Tyner:

Who else has played “Giant Steps?” Do your own searching (Dan Tepfer, Chris Potter, Edward Simon, Chris Dave, and Julian Lage come to mind for a few interesting takes that I’ve found up on YouTube, but really – do your own searching for this one). I wanted to highlight a couple of recent re-workings of “Giant Steps” that show the tune is not a dusty old jazz classic that can’t be touched.

The first I’ll mention is Ethan Iverson’s “Ohnedaruth” as played by the Billy Hart Quartet (Billy Hart on drums, Ethan Iverson on piano, Ben Street on bass, and Mark Turner on sax) on their album All Our Reasons. The BHQ has played “Giant Steps,” as recorded by NPR, which apparently stuck with Ethan Iverson, and in particular Mark Turner and Ben Street’s contributions to the quartet’s playing on that tune. Whether that is a direct link to “Ohnedaruth” or not is not clear to me, but in any case Ethan Iverson wrote “Ohnedaruth” using the “Giant Steps” changes and brought it to the BHQ. (Oddly enough, “Ohnedaruth” is also the title of an Alice Coltrane song from her A Monastic Trio album; apparently Ohnedaruth was John Coltrane’s adopted spiritual name) The Billy Hart Quartet’s “Ohnedaruth” starts with a solo piano introduction from Ethan Iverson, barely hinting at the “Giant Steps” changes underneath the song. Fluid playing here over a contemplative left hand. Not until almost 2:30 does the “Giant Steps” melody get hinted at before Billy Hart’s cymbal cuts off the phrase explosively. The band moves along quickly and slowly at once with Ben Street’s slow bass line over Billy Hart’s rapid drumming – a nice trick with the time. Ethan Iverson’s piano drops out while Mark Turner’s sax leaps in and out with quick phrases, hinting at the Coltrane original without ever quoting outright. Both Hart and Street play the “Giant Steps” rhythm and chord changes (and Street’s bass hits on the melody in there as well). After a middle section led by Mark Turner’s sax, the song closes with a piano/bass unison line and some high tinkling piano notes. An odd sort of arrangement, with the long piano solo to open, then nothing at all from the piano before the ending, but it works. Billy Hart and Ben Street really lock in with each other through the middle section/sax solo of this tune.

Next is Omer Avital’s “Flow.” This version is from Small’s Jazz Club (whose excellent music streams will soon be available for a small fee with revenue going back to the musicians – check out their Kickstarter page to contribute) in May 2011, with Marcus Gilmore on drums, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, and Matan Chapnizka on sax. The song starts with a drum/bass groove that doesn’t even hint at the “Giant Steps” changes. Then the song’s head comes in around 0:50. It isn’t obvious on first listening (to my ears) just what is happening, but on subsequent listening it sounds like the head here is influenced by Coltrane’s solo on the album version. Around 1:20, Omer shouts “I got it, I got it,” and then takes a bass solo with spare drum accompaniment, and only now does the “Giant Steps” melody come out. Omer’s solo starts with a relatively straightforward statement of the melody, playing with the time and phrasing a bit, before moving into some nice bass solo work from Omer Avital. Avishai Cohen’s trumpet solo starts around 3:30, which prompts Marcus Gilmore’s drums to pick up the intensity nicely. Avishai Cohen’s trumpet playing is great here, and Gilad Hekselman offers some great comping… the trumpet states the “Flow” head around 5:00, then charges forward. Around 6:20 or so, an interesting duet between Gilad Hekselman and Matan Chapnizka starts tentatively. I believe Matan quotes Coltrane’s solo around 6:45 as the sax and guitar trade phrases, getting more comfortable with the back and forth as this duet moves along. Around 9:00 this interlocks nicely as they finish each others’ phrases while stating the “Giant Steps” melody. The song ends with a drum showcase for Marcus Gilmore’s fills, and then the bassline from the start of the song comes back around 10:00 with some loose drumming behind it that gets very intense. Around 12:00, Gilad Hekselman’s guitar tentatively re-enters the scene and the band states the head around 12:30. Fin.

A quick aside on Mark Turner – he is the connecting thread in these three tunes (“Giant Steps,” “Ohnedaruth,” and “Flow”). He plays sax on “Giant Steps” with the Billy Hart Quartet, “Ohnedaruth” with the Billy Hart Quartet, and has also played sax on “Flow” with the Omer Avital Quintet (here with Omer Avital on bass, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums, and Avishai Cohen on trumpet). Ethan Iverson has discussed Mark Turner’s sax solo on “Giant Steps” on his blog; I’m sure that some enterprising Mark Turner scholar would have plenty to learn from transcribing his solos on these three variations on “Giant Steps.”

“Ohnedaruth” and “Flow” are great examples of what I’m hoping to highlight in these essays – this music is an ongoing conversation, these tunes are still evolving. It’s happening in the hands of the musicians who write the tunes, and once these songs are out in the world they continue to evolve, grow, shift, and give birth to whole new tunes in this case. Keep listening.

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