In which I do battle with the almost perfect symmetry in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” to try to create something a little messy and asymmetrical.
Have you ever listened to a piece of music that impressed you on its technical merits but left you cold?
This happens to me all the time, particularly with young jazz or classical
This, to be clear, is not how I feel when I listen to John Coltrane’s iconic recording of his tune Giant Steps. Coltrane was never a superficial wunderkind: he pretty much always had a deeply personal sound, even when he was trying not to. The great ones are always, in some intangible way, original.
Still, there is something missing in his recorded performance of Giant Steps. It’s certainly technically impressive: the profoundly original and challenging harmonic structure (though at least in part derived from Richard Rodger’s Have You Met Miss Jones) requires an advanced virtuosity that can’t be dismissed. And Coltrane still sounds like Coltrane, full of passion and intelligence.
What’s missing, as my friend David Bloom astutely noted in a recent newsletter, is an actual musical story—a sonic narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it feels like chorus after chorus of fast 8th notes interrupted only by the occasional signature Coltrane long note which serves as both a breather (for him and us) and a reminder that you’re dealing with a profoundly great man here, not some conservatory-trained technician. But when it’s done, you’re kind of glad it’s over with and you don’t feel like you been taken on a particularly meaningful musical adventure. It’s impressive but kind of flat.
Symmetry is a Trap…
Coltrane woodshedded the tune for months before recording it, and it shows. But the chord changes, which bedeviled Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the session who had no time to practice, and many other since, presented a serious musical problem. They are so symmetrical in their arrangement that they force the player, if they are not careful, into a kind of mechanical trap. You spend some much mental energy trying to negotiate the harmonic progression—what we call the changes—that you fail to notice that you are following the chords rather than creating a musical through-line with them. They become not so much a means for melodic invention as they do a maze to simply get through musically alive. And by following the maze, you are following preset a kind of musical pattern, one that is, again, highly symmetrical. You become a hamster on a mechanical musical wheel following, rather than leading, performing tricks with patterns rather than telling a story.
…But Symmetry is the Goal
And yet there is something profoundly beautiful about these chord changes. Symmetry is beautiful, and something we—as composers, songwriters, novelist, screenwriters, and painters—are forever striving for as a means to create artistic sense. Not just because of the logic, but the cohesiveness, where the smallest parts are reflected in the whole, and vice versa. Symmetry helps tie things together. Think of just about any episode of Breaking Bad (which is about the most perfectly written TV show of all time): small details that are introduced in the teaser, come back,
These symmetries—in the form of visuals, words, expressions in that show—help tie the themes of any given episode, and larger units (seasons, the entire series) together. They also provide a sense of order amid the chaos that happens in the main body of each episode. The main body (Acts one, two and three) are equivalent of the statement of the theme(s) in music (act 1), the development
Breaking Good then Breaking Bad
Coltrane got act one right; it’s practically a perfect tune. It’s in act two, where he develops his themes, where things start to get messy. Or, really, they don’t get quite messy enough. Continuing with the Breaking Bad analogy, if Vince Gilligan had made everything neat, cleanly connected, symmetrical throughout an entire episode it would feel false, and mechanical. For example, say Walter White is shown cooking meth with Jesse Pinkman who turns up the heat to high and cause a near catastrophe as the formula boils over. Walt screams at Jesse. Then, in the next scene, we see Walt’s wife Skylar cooking
Instead, the narratives develop organically, usually climaxing in a literal mess of violence, followed in act three or the tag with something (the cliffhanger) that sets us up for the next episode, and often reflects back to the start. But that mess in the middle, particularly in act 2 where themes are developing, conflicting, bashing against each other, etc., is where the meat of the episode happens. And without all that mess, the symmetry that does exist just feels too clean—like Coltrane’s solo, an endless stream of precision without a story.
Asymmetry as the Way out of the Maze
So it would seem that the only way out of this mess—this maze weaving streams of notes around these perfect chord changes—is to embrace the mess, to let the harmony trip us up, force us down unpredictable paths, allow for some imperfection so that a real story with pathos, an arc, and meaning can unfold. To not follow the chords, but lead them in some way.
Coltrane, of course, was a master storyteller whose music is filled with so much drama that he can simply overwhelm you. But he was, after all, a master technician, and it seems
I would like to believe that had he lived longer (he died in 1967 at the age of 42) he would have eventually come back to the tune and made an important musical statement with it. Or, maybe in a roundabout way he did: you can hear elements of the techniques he developed for this tune in his modal and avant-garde statements. But for Giant Steps anyway, the job is left to the rest of us.
For me, the essence of the tune is too beautiful to ignore. So I decided a long time ago that I had to try to make music out of this perfection—to make a mess out of it. I’m still working on it.
Episode #20 Transcription
Episode 20 Giant steps, Small thinking. The universe is of course filled with symmetry, but it turns out that all of the most interesting and soulful stuff involves breaking the symmetry and that includes music. So in this episode, I’m going to take a deep dive into symmetry and the breaking thereof and how the tension between these two apparently opposite states is what makes for great music. As long as you can find the proper balance. First, this.
There’s a famous tune by the Great John Coltrane called Giant Steps that most jazz musicians know and maybe nobody else except jazz aficionados, which are people who think they love jazz. And this tune is one of a rather small set of tunes that jazz musicians are expected to master. At least they were back in my day back when I was alive, as my kids like to say. From each era of jazz, there’s a tune or two that are supposed to cut your teeth onto prove your metal and all those other cliches.
In general, the blues from every era is one of those: traditional blues, Bebop, blues, modern blues, postmodern Blues, um, whatever comes after postmodern: post ancient blues. And that’s maybe the most fundamental form that you’re expected to master.
And it was recorded in 1959. The name of the album is Giant Steps. You can go check it out. The title cut is the first tune has some great tunes on it, including Syeda’s flute song. Naim, Mr. PC, a great minor blues, Cousin Mary, but giant steps
So this tune, as I said, is one of these classic jazz tunes that you’re supposed to kind of cut your teeth on, be able to prove your mettle. But an interesting thing about this song is that the nature of the way it’s written. The chord structure is such that it makes it very hard to be actually musical. It’s very symmetrical, by which I mean it has a pattern that keeps repeating. And if you follow the symmetry too closely, you will be very mechanical in your playing. So here’s the tune, first part
That’s the first phrase. Then
Now you may not be a musician or you
And you can hear that these are the same musical phrase. And then you have the thing in between. It is symmetrical, it moved the exact same pattern down by a major third and the whole tune is built on these descending and then ascending major thirds. It’s kind of a brilliant
Now he does the rising part, you’ll hear this phrase four times
and then you hear it again up a major third
then you hear it again up a major third. Yeah, and then you hear it again up a major third. Yeah. And then we turn around to get back to the beginning, sort of a breaking of the symmetry, not by a major third.
And then it continues
So there’s the tune, you could hear as I described it, this
So a little backstory on the recording. Coltrane apparently woodshedded, jazz terminology for practicing a lot, on this tune that he wrote. It’s only 16 bars, but it’s very complicated to improvise on. He woodshedded it for maybe six months, and he brings it into this session, uh, with various musicians, including the great Tommy Flanagan on piano. He was Ella Fitzgerald’s, accompanist for years. Wonderful Player. Of
Anyway, getting back to it, the performance as David Bloom pointed out is lacking in truly musical characteristics. And I think the reason for that is the symmetry of the tune forces you into a kind of mechanical style of playing. If you don’t break the symmetry, meaning you have to play against this perfect symmetry in the tune by being well asymmetrical. So Coltrane, who was, uh, maybe in his early thirties when he recorded this, may not have been ready to do that yet. And it’s interesting that after doing this album, he left this style of writing and playing behind and went for a simpler Modal approach with fewer chords or a kind of more bluesy approach, again, with fewer chords. I think he recognized the inherent limitation of having these, this highly symmetrical setup that it was a while, technically it was a great exercise, it was limiting his musicality. But the question I ask, there’s something beautiful about the tune. The late Marriane MaCartaland who had the, a series on NPR piano jazz mentioned that she loved to play the tune as a ballad because the chords were just, the changes were beautiful. So
And they are, there’s something very rich and lush about these chord changes, but they also, I think part of the reason Marion wanted to play it as a ballot is because she could play up that part and avoid the symmetry. When you play it at a faster tempo like culture and did, that forces you into
How do you do air quotes on a podcast? Slowed down improvisation, there that that that will suffice. To give you a sense of how it could be played super symmetrically. Supersymmetry is like string theory. There’s and there’s too much symmetry in string theory by the way. That’s physics, right?
So here we go. I’m going to purposely do this as symmetrically as possible.
Okay. I started to break out of the pattern, but you get the idea of just this pattern style of playing and again, it’s hard not to play that way in this tune, so as an improviser you have to almost force yourself to break the symmetry. So let’s see if I could do that.
Not so much. You can maybe hear that it’s a struggle for me anyway to break out of it when I’m playing it in that kind of traditional jazz solo format, I struggle with it.
But from a personal standpoint, I think like a lot of musicians, jazz musicians, and I don’t really consider myself a jazz musician. I’m a musician who’s got a deep background in what’s called Jazz, which is kind of a
It’s inner workings, its inner meaning to find something musical that could be done with it. Well, we’ll never know, but I felt like, okay, he, the master left it for the rest of us to figure
This is like maybe in my
And I think I was able to make a real piece of music out of this because I left behind the idea of “can I prove myself on this? Can I show to the jazz community, look at me, I can nail this thing. “And instead, and you know, I have almost no connection with the jazz community. So I don’t know why I felt the need to do that, but