[Review] John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1960)

This is the album where Coltrane completely distances himself from the company of mere mortals.

Kronomyth 7.0: A giant among jazzmen.

The aptly titled Giant Steps is a landmark record in the history of twentieth-century music, as it marks the formal introduction of Coltrane’s unique and revolutionary chromatic thirds chord shifts. His use of chromatic progressions based on thirds was something he apparently toyed with on earlier songs, but hadn’t fully worked out until the sessions for Giant Steps. I write “apparently” because I wouldn’t know a chromatic third chord shift if it bit me. I’d know I was bitten by something, sure, I just wouldn’t be able to describe it accurately to a police sketch artist.

Bitten, smitten, whatever you call it, Giant Steps is an album for the ages. Rolling Stone named it the 103rd greatest album of all time in 2012, and that’s from a rock & roll publication. How cool does a fifty-year-old jazz album have to be to carry that kind of cachet with rock critics? I’ll admit, the first few times I listened to this album, I was nonplussed. It sounded like Coltrane soloing with a quartet that was clearly out of synch. And then I realized, they weren’t out of synch, they were out of their league; Coltrane had leapfrogged everybody in his pursuit of this new, strange language, and all anyone could do was mumble along and hope no one noticed. At least, that’s how it feels on “Giant Steps” and “Countdown,” the two tracks that notably employ Coltrane’s new scale.

The quartet sounds far more confident on the gorgeous “Naima,” “Spiral,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute” and the rest of these tracks. Tommy Flanagan must have wondered what he got himself into when he first heard “Giant Steps,” but he acquits himself with tasteful performances on “Spiral” and “Mr. P.C.,” the latter named for Paul Chambers, Coltrane’s longtime bass player. Chambers gets a couple of solos in as well and, with drummer Art Taylor, does his best to keep up with Coltrane on the faster cuts. Honestly, Coltrane makes mincemeat out of nearly everyone on this album, including his backing band. By the time “Giant Steps” is finished, you’ll swear he’s even miles ahead of Miles.

If Coltrane had never released another album, he’d probably still be regarded as the greatest tenor saxophonist of all time. Of course, he did release more albums and continued to explore new sounds, expanding his influence beyond jazz into the realms of avant-garde and even pop music. Giant Steps is important because it distances him from everyone else around him and reveals an artist who isn’t confined by what came before him. This is Coltrane the creator, the master musician, a god at play in a garden of his own design.

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Original elpee version

A1. Giant Steps (4:43)
A2. Cousin Mary (5:45)
A3. Countdown (2:21)
A4. Spiral (5:56)
B1. Syeeda’s Song Flute (7:00)
B2. Naima (4:21)
B3. Mr. P.C. (6:57)

All songs written by John Coltrane.

The Players

John Coltrane (tenor sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Tommy Flanagan (piano), Art Taylor (drums) with Jimmy Cobb (drums on B2), Wynton Kelly (piano on B2). Recording engineered by Tom Dowd and Phil Iehle; supervised by Neruhi Ertegun.

The Pictures

Cover photo by Lee Friedlander. Cover design by Marvin Israel.

The Plastic

Released on mono and stereo elpee in January 1960* in the US (Atlantic, 1311) [bullseye labels] and the UK (London, LTZ-K 15197). There are also mono versions of this elpee in the US on the black Atlantic label, which may be first issues or regional issues, I don’t know. (*First referenced in 1/25/60 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Atlantic, 1311) [red-plum label].
  2. Re-issued on elpee in Japan (Atlantic, P-7502A) [green-blue label].
  3. Re-issued on stereo elpee in 1975 in the US (Atlantic, SD 1311) and in the 1970s in Japan (Atlantic, P-6003A) [green-orange label].
  4. Re-issued on elpee in 1979 in Germany (Atlantic, ATL 50 239) [That’s Jazz series #9] with unique cover.
  5. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 1994 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, 605).
  6. Re-released on expanded compact disc and cassette in 1992 in the US (Atlantic, SD/CS-1311) with 5 bonus tracks.
  7. Re-released as Deluxe Edition on expanded, remastered compact disc in 1998 (Rhino, 75203) with 8 bonus tracks.
  8. Re-released on 180g vinyl in 2003 in the US (Rhino, 75203).
  9. Re-issued on 180g vinyl in 2011 in Europe (Not Now, NOTLP125) with unique cover.
  10. Re-issued on mono 180g vinyl elpee on September 26, 2018 in Japan (Atlantic, WPJR-10029).
  11. Re-released on 180g blue vinyl elpee in 2019 in the US (DOL, DOL857HB).

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