Tenor saxophone giant John Coltrane recorded Kind of Blue with Miles Davis in early March and late April 1959, but when he returned to the studio as a leader in May to make Giant Steps, his first outing for Atlantic Records, he was after something different.
For one thing, the program consisted entirely of Coltrane originals; during his previous stint with Prestige, he often recorded standards. And rather than the longer floating stretches of harmonic stasis that Davis was dealing with on Kind of Blue (an approach that came to be called modal jazz), Giant Steps' title track involved the most crowded, unexpected, and fast-moving chord changes that Coltrane, or perhaps anyone for that matter, had ever improvised over. “Countdown,” the third track, was another ferocious obstacle course in the same vein. The discipline involved was astounding, but what remains most striking, apart from the technical achievement, is the sheer passion and melodic beauty of the performances. With these highly systematized yet eminently musical compositions, Coltrane set a new standard in the art of “playing changes”—navigating harmony much as Charlie Parker and the beboppers had, but with new sounds and possibilities in mind. Yet once he had mastered the chord-intensive challenge of “Giant Steps,” he just as soon all but abandoned it, favoring the more exploratory promise of the modal sound and ultimately the full-on abstract expression of the avant-garde.
Coltrane would soon move from Atlantic to Impulse! and assemble his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. The Giant Steps lineup was therefore transitional in a sense, yet superb: Pianist Tommy Flanagan was one of Detroit’s post-bop masters, thrown off by the unfamiliar “Giant Steps” progression but stately and authoritative on everything else; bassist Paul Chambers, who played on Kind of Blue, is the dedicatee of “Mr. P.C.,” the roaring minor-key blues that closes out the album; and drummer Art “A.T.” Taylor was a fount of jazz wisdom and a guide for future generations. They brought swing and subtlety to Coltrane’s music, which, aside from the chops-busting numbers, also included such lyrical inventions as “Spiral” and “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” The haunting ballad “Naima,” which became another signature Coltrane piece, was a meditative departure, recorded at a later session in December 1959 with pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb (both of whom played on Kind of Blue as well). Those frenetic peaks of intensity alongside the album's most serene interludes signaled a new stage in Coltrane’s artistic journey.
Syeeda's Song Flute
7 SONGS, 38 MINUTES
℗ 1960 ATLANTIC RECORDS. MARKETED BY RHINO ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY, A WARNER MUSIC GROUP COMPANY