Friday, March 16, 2012

Coltrane's "Giant Steps:" Spontaneously Laying it Down

I’m on Spring Break this week, but by a lot of people’s standards, I usually don’t do a whole lot. Obviously, the days of sticking to Velcro walls in Padre Island are long over (a story with its own soundtrack that may one day be worth recounting). These days, I usually find the “staycation” just as cathartic. It feels good to wake up to no alarm, drink coffee, and decide what I am going to do based on whatever I feel like doing.

This year is a little more complicated, however, because I also get to play “Mr. Mom” with the Little One. This in no way a complaint - during the school year, I often drop her off in the morning and don’t get to spend much quality time with her until bedtime. I am grateful for the opportunity to hang with her all day. Now we “hit the town” together, but taking into account naptime, feeding, and general mood swings, I have to plan my “spontaneity” a little bit more carefully than in the past.

This afternoon, I spontaneously decided to cook one of my absolute favorite paleo dishes for lunch: yam and sausage hash. My vegan/vegetarian wife is a little apprehensive about the meat in this dish, so when I’m cooking just for me, it’s kind of a special treat. The Little One and I took a trip to Whole Foods for the ingredients to this easy recipe:

-Grate 2 yams (food processor makes this quick)

-Brown 1 lb sausage

-Put it all in a skillet with some coconut oil and cinnamon

-Cook it all up

-Mack it down

When we got back, the Little One played happily with a variety of sound-making apparatus, I filled the house with the smell of cinnamon and sweet potatoes, and we listened to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

She, of course, is an old expert in jazz by now. The very first album she ever heard in open air was Kind of Blue. As great as that album is, Giant Steps is another beast entirely. I’m a decent improviser, but if you asked me to play over any of the songs in Giant Steps, I would humbly decline. I know just enough to know that there is no way that I could fake my way through these amazing songs. The studies that I have engaged in, however, have provided me enough of an ear for what “sounds right” to really appreciate Coltrane’s incredible mastery over both his instrument and his contributions to jazz theory.

Giant Steps represents the pinnacle of harmonic complexity in "traditional" jazz. The main melody its title track is catchy and simple, but it skips across a set of chord progressions that are fiendishly complex. Hold on tight:

When improvising, a jazz musician has to spontaneously juggle a complex musical vocabulary based on jazz tradition and the harmonic potentials offered by the song. After thousands of hours of practice, the best improvisers cultivate an awareness of these potentials, intuitively setting up and targeting the notes that sound good in any given key. This is an incredibly difficult skill set to master, even on a relatively standard song form in a common key.

Coltrane devised a logic for a distinctive flavor of harmonic complexity, successfully crafted it into a working song, and proved that it worked by improvising over it with unparalleled fervor. Giant Steps changes keys virtually every measure, each with its own set of tendencies and potentials. Professionals and college professors have, at the very least, a healthy respect for playing an effective solo over its changes.

Coltrane continued to explore the potential in his harmonic approach throughout Giant Steps, sometimes in entirely different settings. On the unbelievably beautiful ballad Naima, Coltrane explores the saxophone’s unique timbral potential. From the very first note to the very last, Coltrane’s saxophone cries on Naima. This version below is much more aggressive at times than the studio recording, but it also shows the incredible range of sounds that Coltrane had in his toolbox at the time, not to mention his astounding rhythm section.

The master plan while Coltrane was laying it down this afternoon was to eat, strap the Little One to my chest, and go for a walk on a local hiking trail. Before the album finished, however, and before I finished my lunch, the Little One had fallen asleep. She spontaneously became the one laying it down, so to speak. So much for plans – perhaps a rerun of original series Star Trek is in order.

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