John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Animated Representation

John Coltrane would leave for a road trip with the Quartet carrying nothing but his horn case and the Slonimsky book.
—McCoy Tyner

John Coltrane (1926-1967) is generally recognized as one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. However, at times I wonder whether the famous phrase applied to his playing—”Sheets of sound”—actually might lead the unwary to underestimate his talent, work ethic, and achievements. Such is the problem with music-history courses graded via multiple-choice examinations. “Coltrane???” “Oh, yeah—Sheets of sound!” A bit reductive… .

In truth, Coltrane was quite a Music Theory Nerd. He owned a copy of Nicholas Slonimsky’s fearsome Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and had memorized much of it. (That book, first published in 1947, includes more than a thousand musical examples, the majority being not in traditional Western major or minor scales.)

The title track of Coltrane’s LP Giant Steps (recorded 1959) moves through three keys separated by major thirds… hence the giant steps. The tight structuring of this brief musical gem should dispel the impression that Coltrane was just making random noises. The animated graphical representation by Michal Levy is in its own way a great work of art, too.

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