JOHN COLTRANE — Giant Steps (review)

JOHN COLTRANE — Giant Steps album cover Album · 1959 · Hard Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
I must confess that, while I know just enough about jazz/rock fusion to be dangerous, when it comes to the great jazz masters that reigned from the beginnings of the genre through the 60s I am a true tenderfoot. So, in many respects and in most cases, I’m hearing many of the finest jazz recordings for the first time and reviewing them as fairly as possible while being constantly aware that I know very little about which I write. I do know that I can now more fully appreciate the joy that hi-fi enthusiasts must’ve experienced when someone like Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck bravely ventured into jazz realms that were previously uncharted. I had a friend growing up whose dad was very much into keeping his sound reproduction system state-of-the-art and, as I discover the magnificence of albums such as this one decades down the line, I now understand why he was so protective of his equipment (and why his biggest fear was that Joe and I would break his rules and somehow manage to screw things up while he was at work). I have fond memories of how new LPs from the likes of The Beatles, Yes and Return to Forever would give me goose bumps along with occasional out-of-body experiences and I figure that folks like Mr. Toldan got the same elation from hearing landmark records like “Giant Steps.”

This was John Coltrane’s fifth studio album yet it was the first to feature nothing but his own compositions exclusively. With it also being his debut on the Atlantic label, it no doubt marked a new chapter in his career in that he now had much more control over content and, therefore, a newly-realized freedom to push the envelope of the accepted norm. With it coming out in January of 1960 I’m sure it’s anything but a coincidence that it boldly announced that the brand new decade would be one of enormous innovation and changes in the status quo. As I intimated earlier, I’m still very much a newcomer to John Coltrane’s legendary magic but I can humbly attest to the fact that I am enraptured by his genius already. It’s just one of the many miracles of jazz music: It truly never ages even long after the artist has left this mortal coil and it’s often still as fresh today as the afternoon it was recorded.

The aptly named title song jump starts the album without apologies. Its swift pace doesn’t intimidate Coltrane at all as he flies overhead raining down showers of incredible runs on his tenor saxophone. Pianist Tommy Flanders is content to offer up some graceful chordings as if to give John a breather in order for him to deliver yet another spirited volley at the end but who could blame him for not trying to compete? The overall effect is stunning and it’s easy to see why this tune has become the benchmark for sax players that justifiably separates the pretenders from the wannabes. “Cousin Mary” is more of a traditional walking bass blues piece but, like a fine actor, you can’t take your eyes (or ears, in this instance) off of Coltrane for a second. His presence and charisma is riveting. Flanagan’s piano lead is excellent and bassman Paul Chambers turns in a fluid ride on his upright. “Countdown” opens with a brief drum solo from Art Taylor followed by a furious flurry of notes from Coltrane’s instrument. The word exhilarating doesn’t do it justice. It’s 2:21 of light-speed particles blitzing through your head like cosmic rays.

A shuffle beat provides the foundation for “Spiral” and it lends the number a lively, optimistic atmosphere. Of special note is the studio’s ambience the engineers wisely captured that makes the listener feel like they’re right there in the room with the band. Tommy’s piano work is outstanding and it’s the most melodic tune on the album. Playful accents grant “Syeeda’s Song Flute” a welcome touch of mirth but one is struck by John’s unbelievable command of his saxophone. Once again, Flanagan’s keyboard proves to be the perfect counterbalance to JC’s overwhelming brilliance. A breathtaking, gorgeous aura surrounds the serene piece Coltrane wrote for his wife, “Naima,” that the English language fails to describe. Here Wynton Kelly sits at the piano bench and Jimmy Cobb lays down drums so delicate that you must strain to hear him. It’s almost uncanny how unified and in harmony the musicians are in their collective performance and I can only urge you to hear it for yourself. “Mr. P.C.” is the original LP closer and John chose to do so atop an energized tempo that allows him to gallantly lead the way out. Tommy’s piano ride flows like a swollen river and Art’s drum fills are stupendously novel and entertaining.

The album I have contains four additional cuts consisting of alternate takes. On “Giant Steps” and “Naima” Cedar Walton plays piano and Lex Humphries provides the drum tracks. They are both quite adequate at what they do and it’s nice to hear their interpretations and contributions. “Cousin Mary” and “Countdown” sound like enthusiastic warm-ups to the “keepers” but they ain’t too shabby, neither. These fellas were good every day, all the time.

I hope that younger lovers of music will not overlook the vast catalog of spectacular performances that have been preserved for all time to come just because their proponents grew up and lived in the 30s, 40s and 50s. The music they made has no expiration date on the label and you’ll find a literal smorgasbord of aural art to indulge in as you explore the creations of jazz titans like JC. It’s like finally getting around to reading Dostoyevsky and realizing that his revered talent wasn’t just hype. I, for one, look forward to hearing more from the library of sounds left behind by Mr. Coltrane. If they’re anything approaching “Giant Steps” I can’t wait to experience what my brain will next attempt to absorb.
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more than 2 years ago
Nice review, I had the same feelings listening to these timeless pieces of music, I too come from a different music listening back ground, Mainly growing up listening wise in 80's, I was into hair metal of all things, then Metallica and Megadeth and the like, It all changed for me when I saw a rebroadcast of Austin City Limits with Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was blown away, and became a disciple so to speak, through Vaughan i went on to discover all those Blues men that Vaughan studied, Albert King and Lonnie Mack in Particular. Through them I discovered Miles Davis and His Walkin' album from 1954, I remember how exciting it was hearing Bitches Brew for the first time 10 years ago, Coltrane's A love Supreme etc... All those classics do sound fresh and modern even 10 years after hearing them for the first time. if you like Giant Steps, 'Ole would be a good one to try next from the Atlantic years.


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