The most feared song in jazz: "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane

By lmt-editorJune 21, 2024
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

In the world of jazz, there are many songs that musicians approach with a sense of reverence and, at times, fear. One song, however, stands out as the epitome of technical challenge and improvisational difficulty: "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane.

John Coltrane

The legacy of John Coltrane

John Coltrane, born on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina, was a pioneering saxophonist and composer whose influence on jazz is immeasurable. 

Coltrane's work spanned bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, pushing the boundaries of harmony and improvisation. 

His innovative approach and relentless pursuit of musical exploration have left an indelible mark on the world of jazz, making him one of the genre's most revered figures.

The genius of "Giant Steps"

Released in 1960 on the album of the same name, "Giant Steps" quickly became a cornerstone of modern jazz and a rite of passage for jazz musicians. Its rapid tempo and complex chord changes present a daunting task for even the most skilled performers.

John Coltrane crafted "Giant Steps" with a harmonic structure that was revolutionary for its time. The song's chord progression, known as the "Coltrane changes," cycles through three key centres separated by major thirds. This creates a sequence of rapid modulations that can be incredibly challenging to navigate.

The tune's melody is equally intricate, requiring precise articulation and timing. The combination of these elements makes "Giant Steps" a formidable test of a jazz musician's ability.

Understanding the "Coltrane Changes"

The "Coltrane changes" are a series of chord progressions that cycle through different key centres in a symmetrical pattern.

They are most famously used in John Coltrane's composition "Giant Steps."

These changes typically follow a pattern of moving by major thirds, creating a harmonic sequence that spans a wide range of keys within a short time frame.

Here's the standard chord progression for "Giant Steps":

  • B major 7
  • D7
  • G major 7
  • Bb7
  • Eb major 7
  • A minor 7
  • D7
  • G major 7
  • Bb7
  • Eb major 7
  • F#7
  • And it goes on.... cycling through three keys!

This pattern means that the chords do not stay in a single key for long, making it a challenge for musicians to navigate the changes smoothly.

Saxophone player with piano on the background

In-depth analysis of the "Coltrane Changes"

Symmetrical structure

The progression moves through key centres that are a major third apart (B, G, Eb). This symmetry creates a unique and challenging harmonic landscape that requires musicians to constantly reorient their sense of tonality.

Cycle of major thirds

Each major chord in the progression is followed by a dominant seventh chord that resolves to the next major chord a major third away. For example, B major 7 moves to D7, which resolves to G major 7, then to Bb7, and so on.

Frequent key modulations

The rapid movement through different key centres means that musicians must have a strong grasp of all 12 keys and be able to transition between them quickly and smoothly.

Voice leading

Good voice leading is essential to make the chord changes sound smooth and connected. Musicians must focus on finding the nearest chord tones and making small, stepwise movements between chords.

Extended harmonic vocabulary

Because the progression is non-diatonic, musicians need to expand their harmonic vocabulary to include altered scales, arpeggios, and other advanced harmonic concepts.

Example of the "Coltrane Changes" in "Giant Steps"

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the harmonic progression in the first eight bars of "Giant Steps":

Bars 1-2: B major 7 to D7
Bars 3-4: G major 7 to Bb7
Bars 5-6: Eb major 7 to F#7
Bars 7-8: B major 7

This structure demonstrates the rapid key changes and the challenge of maintaining smooth voice leading and harmonic continuity throughout the progression.

Man playing saxophone with spotlight

Why is "Giant Steps" the most feared song in jazz?

"Giant Steps" by John Coltrane is a song that strikes fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned jazz musicians. This track is renowned for its unparalleled complexity and demands on technical proficiency, making it a benchmark for jazz performance. Here are the three key reasons why "Giant Steps" is considered the most feared song in jazz:

Reason #1: Complex Chord Changes

The "Coltrane changes" present a formidable challenge to musicians, forcing them to think quickly and adapt to frequent key changes.

These changes cycle through three key centres (B major, G major, and Eb major) in rapid succession, requiring a deep understanding of harmony and the ability to transition seamlessly between different tonal centres.

This non-diatonic harmonic structure demands extensive theoretical knowledge and practical experience, making it difficult to navigate.

Reason #2: Fast Tempo

"Giant Steps" is typically played at a blistering pace, often exceeding 250 beats per minute, leaving little room for error.

This rapid tempo demands exceptional technical proficiency and quick reflexes, as musicians must execute complex fingerings and intricate passages with precision and speed.

The combination of fast tempo and complex chord changes requires musicians to be in peak technical condition, as even the smallest mistake can be magnified.

Reason #3: Improvisational Demands

Soloing over the chord changes of "Giant Steps" is one of the ultimate tests of a jazz musician's improvisational skills.

The song's structure demands creativity and precision, requiring musicians to generate melodic ideas that navigate the rapid key changes smoothly.

This requires a high level of mental agility, theoretical knowledge, and spontaneous creativity.

The fast tempo further complicates improvisation, as ideas must be executed quickly and accurately, marking a musician as highly skilled and knowledgeable in jazz.

Listen to "Giant Steps"

For those who want to experience the awe-inspiring complexity of "Giant Steps," here are some notable recordings:

1. John Coltrane's Original Recording (1960) 

2. Other notable versions:

   Michael Brecker's Interpretation

   McCoy Tyner's Solo Piano Version

Tips for mastering "Giant Steps"

For musicians aiming to conquer "Giant Steps," here are a few tips:

Tip #1. Practise slowly: Start at a slower tempo to fully understand the chord changes and develop muscle memory.

Tip #2. Analyse the harmony: Break down the chord changes and study their relationships. Understanding the theory behind the "Coltrane changes" is crucial.

Tip #3. Transcribe solos: Listen to recordings of great musicians and transcribe their solos. This helps in learning how they navigate the changes and develop ideas.

Tip #4. Use patterns and sequences: Incorporate patterns and sequences into your practice to build familiarity with the chord changes.

Woman playing saxophone

Final words:

"Giant Steps" remains one of the most feared and respected songs in jazz. Its complex harmonic structure, rapid tempo, and improvisational demands make it a benchmark for jazz musicians. 

By studying and practising this iconic piece, musicians can push the boundaries of their abilities and gain a deeper appreciation for the art of jazz.

Whether you're a musician looking to take on the challenge or a jazz enthusiast wanting to understand the intricacies of this masterpiece, "Giant Steps" offers a thrilling journey into the heart of jazz innovation.

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