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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 wunderkinds, where I’ll have an immediate superficial reaction along the lines of “wow impressive chops,” followed almost by profound boredom and, in some cases, dismay the so many notes are being spewed out to so little effect.

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, are built on, and usually have a reflection with deeper meaning in the end.

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 or solos section (act 2) and the recapitulation (return of the themes) in act 3. (In this analogy, an intro would be like the teaser, and a vamp at the end would be akin to the tag.)

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 stew for dinner in their house with the help of their son, Walt Jr. Similarly, Walt Jr. turns up the heat to high and the stew boils over. Skylar screams at him. If Breaking Bad had actually been written this way, you would have turned it off. It’s too damn cute, to clean, too symmetrical.

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 that, obsessive practicer that he was, he focused solely on getting through the changes rather than saying something with them.

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 then there’s things like rhythm changes, which is chord changes based on the famous, I got rhythm by George Gershwin, that was during the bebop era used as the framework for many songs. And even post-bop like Oleo by Sonny Rollins, which is one of my favorites. Again, you were expected to be able to master these changes. There’s the kind of competitive aspect to this that’s always been in jazz and in really all music that you had to nail that. It’s like in classical music, pianists needed to be able to play the, whatever, Chopin etudes. And then there’s modal classics like so what from Miles Davis is um, kind of blue album and then there’s giant steps kind of fitting near the end of the post-bop era.

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 opens this set. The album itself is iconic. It’s number 102 on Rolling Stones. Greatest albums ever. It’s definitely not one of Coltrane’s greatest albums. And it just shows you what people at Rolling Stone was there. They’re probably thinking, well, we put Miles Davis at, you know, whatever, 20 something and Kind of Blue. So we gotta, we gotta find another black jazz musician to put on there. Okay. Coltrane, Coltrane’s big, what’s famous by Coltrane? Giant steps. But it’s it’s definitely not one of his greatest albums.

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 may be, but in any case you should be able to notice that there’s a pattern there that repeats. You have just melodically speaking and then you have this kind of turnaround


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 ingenius exercise in symmetrical composing. And I use that word exercise by accident on purpose as you’ll see in a minute. So the tune goes, let me continue


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 built in symmetry. Now this is not a bad thing. All music has symmetry. All art ,nature is filled with it. But when there’s too much symmetry in music, it becomes mechanical, almost inhuman. And a few weeks ago, my friend who I mentioned in a previous episode, David Bloom, he sent out one of his email to his, bloom school jazz clients. And it was about this tune giant steps and Coltrane’s performance on it. And he said in that little piece that something that I think a lot of us have thought for many years that Coltrane’s performance, while it’s technically flawless, is kind of lacking in musicality. It doesn’t have an arc, doesn’t tell a story, it’s just a bunch of fast eighth notes over this pattern of highly symmetrical chord changes.


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 course so Coltrane had been practicing and mastering these changes for six months. He brings it in and he nails the solo from a technical standpoint, you can’t argue with it. And then he gives Tommy Flanagan, who has not had six months to master these chord changes. He’s had probably six minutes at most. And his solo is rather fumbling which this leads me to believe is that Coltrane who was a deeply spiritual, deeply thoughtful man, fortunately also had a mean streak. He kind of embarrassed the dude, but it kind of makes me admire Coltrane more because he’s so like otherwise he’s deified in the jazz community as almost like this godlike spiritual figure. There’s a church of John Coltrane, I believe in San Francisco as there should be. Why not?

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 kind of a very patterned mechanical approach to playing that forces in a way you to play it like it’s an eight two to study an exercise in nonmusicality. You can of course go listen to the original, but let me give you a sense of slow down improvisation and I did air quotes there.

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 cover all for all, lot of different types of music actually. Anyway, from a personal standpoint, I felt at some point in my life the need to tackle this tune. Why? A part of it was the ego thing, proving my metal. Part of it was also the beauty in the symmetry of the chord changes as Marrian McCartland pointed out, and part of it was this feeling of, well, Coltrane provided us this roadmap. He moved on from it and then unfortunately he died at a very young age at 42 in 1967. I often wondered, would Coltrane have come back to this with a more mature point of view to tackle it?

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 out . Is this a musical statement? Can something truly transcendently musical be made out of it? But it didn’t start that way from me first. The ego part came in, I got a master these changes to prove myself to the jazz community. Well that didn’t work. I did write dozens of variations to practice on this tune and most of them are just mechanical exercises and dull, but I’m a musical person. So in investigating it, I started to veer more towards that other part of the equation. Can something musical be made out of it? Can the symmetry lead us down a path toward something more profound. So somewhat inadvertently, I started to go down that path.

This is like maybe in my mid forties. I started investigating it and I’d put it away and I come back to it thinking this is insane. There’s, why am I doing this? But I would come back to it and I’m coming back to it today as a kind of, um, stop along the way because in truth, I finally settled on a full composition based on this song that is written for jazz trio. That is piano, bass and drums and rrapper. That’s right. I wrote rap lyrics to it and I hope to record this someday. The composition is not 100% complete, but what you’re hearing interspersed here are solo piano versions of some of that.


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 instead I focused on the inner beauty of the tune to see what I could build out of it. And that’s what you’re hearing here. My attempt to tackle this roadmap that Coltrane left us. Does it work? It still feels rather symmetrical, but I think I’ve been able to make something out of it.


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