John Coltrane Countdown Analysis Essay

For other uses, see Giant Steps (disambiguation).

Giant Steps is the fifth studio album by jazz musician John Coltrane as leader, released in 1960 on Atlantic Records, catalogue SD 1311. His first album for his new label Atlantic, it is the breakthrough album for Coltrane as a leader, and many of its tracks have become practice templates for jazz saxophonists.[2][3] In 2004, it was one of fifty recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.


In 1959, Miles Davis's business manager Harold Lovett negotiated a record contract for Coltrane with Atlantic, the terms including a $7,000 annual guarantee.[4] Initial sessions for this album, the second recording date for Coltrane under his new contract after a January 15 date led by Milt Jackson, took place on March 26, 1959.[5] The results of this session with Cedar Walton and Lex Humphries were not used, but appeared on subsequent compilations and reissues. Principal recording for the album took place on May 4 and 5, two weeks after Coltrane had participated in the final session for Kind of Blue.[6] The track "Naima" was recorded on December 2 with Coltrane's bandmates, the rhythm section from the Miles Davis Quintet, who would provide the backing for most of his next album, Coltrane Jazz.[7]

The recording exemplifies Coltrane's melodic phrasing that came to be known as sheets of sound, and features his explorations into third-related chord movements that came to be known as Coltrane changes.[8] Jazz musicians continue to use the Giant Steps chord progression, which consists of a peculiar set of chords that often move in thirds, as a practice piece and as a gateway into modern jazz improvisation. Several pieces on this album went on to become jazz standards, most prominently "Naima" and "Giant Steps".[9]


The Penguin Guide to Jazz selected this album as part of its suggested "Core Collection" calling it "Trane's first genuinely iconic record."[16] In 2003, the album was ranked number 102 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.[17]

On March 3, 1998, Rhino Records reissued Giant Steps as part of its Atlantic 50th Anniversary Jazz Gallery series. Included were eight bonus tracks, five of which had appeared in 1975 on the Atlantic compilation Alternate Takes, the remaining three earlier issued on The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings in 1995.

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by John Coltrane.

1."Giant Steps"4:43
2."Cousin Mary"5:45
8."Giant Steps" (alternate version 1)3:41
9."Naima" (alternate version 1)4:27
10."Cousin Mary" (alternate take)5:54
11."Countdown" (alternate take)4:33
12."Syeeda's Song Flute" (alternate take)7:02
13."Giant Steps" (alternate version 2)3:32
14."Naima" (alternate version 2)3:37
15."Giant Steps" (alternate take)5:00




Release history[edit]

  • 1960 – Atlantic Records SD 1311, vinyl record
  • 1987 – Atlantic Records, first generation compact disc
  • 1994 – Mobile Fidelity Gold CD
  • 1998 – Rhino Records R2 75203, Deluxe Edition compact disc and 180-gram vinyl record


  1. ^Rateyourmusic entry
  2. ^Ben Ratliff. Coltrane: The Story of A Sound. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 2007. ISBN 978-0-374-12606-3. pp. 53-54.
  3. ^Lewis Porter. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999. ISBN 0-472-10161-7, p. 145.
  4. ^Lewis Porter. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999. ISBN 0-472-10161-7, pp. 117-8.
  5. ^Porter, p. 145, pp. 359-60.
  6. ^Porter, p. 360.
  7. ^Giant Steps. Atlantic R2 75203, liner notes, p. 18.
  8. ^Porter, pp. 145-148
  9. ^Jazz Standards website retrieved 7 August 2011Archived 17 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^Allmusic review
  11. ^Down Beat reviewArchived 2009-06-07 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^Penguin Guide to Jazz review
  13. ^Rolling Stone review
  14. ^Virgin Encyclopedia review
  15. ^Swenson, J. (Editor) (1985). The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide. USA: Random House/Rolling Stone. p. 46. ISBN 0-394-72643-X. 
  16. ^Cook, Richard; Brian Morton (2006) [1992]. "John Coltrane". The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. The Penguin Guide to Jazz (8th. ed.). New York: Penguin. p. 269. ISBN 0-14-102327-9. 
  17. ^"102) Giant Steps". Rolling Stone. New York. November 2003. Archived from the original on March 22, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2013. 

External links[edit]

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer

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.

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.

Tommy Flanagan:

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.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.

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