The most popular form of entertainment in America during the first half of the twentieth century was dancing, of all things, and in order to provide music for people to dance to during the swing and big band era of the ’30s and ’40s, live bands were needed. (Not only was recording technology very primitive at the time, but elaborate loudspeaker and stereo systems just didn’t exist like they do today.) But after World War II, jazz music started to change, moving away from danceable numbers to faster, improvised playing with more emphasis on performance. This style of music became known as bebop, and Charlie Parker was its most important figure. “Bird,” as Parker was nicknamed, served as a mentor for Miles Davis when he moved to New York City and joined the Charlie Parker Quintet.
Davis’ stint with Parker’s quintet wouldn’t last long, however, and by the end of the ’40s Davis had birthed cool jazz, which was considerably slower, softer and more relaxed than bebop. Davis’ classic album ‘Round About Midnight (1957) was recorded over the course of three days in 1955 and 1956, with John Coltrane appearing on tenor sax. (It’s an honorable mention.) Davis formed the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955, and with John Coltrane recorded the classic albums Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957), Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958), Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961). (The only one of these I have heard is Workin’, which is an honorable mention.)
Although those four albums were released over a period of several years, they were actually recorded in just two days, on May 11 and October 26, 1956. The sessions allowed Miles to quickly fulfill his contract with Prestige, his indie label, so he could proceed with recording for Columbia, the major label he would record for until his death in 1991. (Some sort of deal was arranged so that Davis could record ‘Round About Midnight with Columbia while still signed to Prestige as long as it wasn’t released until after his contract with Prestige expired.) By the time Davis recorded ‘Round About Midnight and formed his quintet, bebop had evolved into what has become known as hard bop, which had an agitated, restless energy to it. Battling a now-famous heroin addiction, Coltrane was fired, re-hired, and fired again by Davis within a six-month span before he finally kicked the habit.
He signed with Blue Note, a hard bop label, and released the excellent Blue Train in 1957. (It’s an honorable mention.) Trane returned to working with Miles Davis, appearing on Milestones in 1958 before making one of his greatest contributions to jazz in 1959. On just two separate days, March 2 and April 22, 1959, Davis assembled an awesome collection of talent in New York City and recorded Kind of Blue, widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time. (Kind of Blue really is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect album that every music fan needs to have in their collection.) And on May 2 and May 3, 1959, less than two weeks later, Coltrane was in the studio again, this time as a leader, to record Giant Steps, his first album with Atlantic Records, an edgy label (at least back then — now it’s part of the Warner empire and is pretty much indistinguishable from every other corporate label) best known as the label of Ray Charles and, a decade later, Led Zeppelin.
Milestones and Kind of Blue found Davis exploring the possibilities of modal music, where compositions are based on modal improvisation instead of soloing over chord progressions, and Giant Steps incorporates the developments Davis (and, by extension, Coltrane) made in the area of modal improvisation into the arena of dense, fast, and agitated performance-based hard bop. In case you’re wondering, a mode is just the pitch of a scale. You play different modes by shifting the start (i.e., root) and end notes when playing through a scale. Until that point, soloing had just been based on chord changes. You would simply solo in a scale that would correspond with the current chord, shifting along with the chord progression.
But in modal jazz, the harmonic framework is much looser, as the typical chord progression found in most music is slower or absent altogether. This opens improvising up considerably, freeing up whomever is soloing to an enormous amount of possibilities; they can create solos without worrying about having to accommodate a frequent chord change. That’s why Kind of Blue is so spacious and great. But on Giant Steps, Coltrane does change chords frequently, creating what jazz writer Ira Gitler labeled “sheets of sound” by vertically traversing modal scales while horizontally creating melodic hard bop through rapid chord progressions. (The vertical/horizontal thing might not make sense at first, but it should if you think about it terms of a guitar rather than a sax. At least, that’s how I make sense of it.)
Improvisation, if you don’t know, is the blood that flows through the veins of jazz, and Giant Steps just took playing to a whole new level. With the exception of “Naima,” a tranquil tune reminiscent of the much more relaxed Kind of Blue, ‘Trane rockets through song after song at breakneck speed. (Tellingly, “Naima” was recorded seven months after the rest of the tracks with Coltrane and the pianist, drummer and bassist who appeared on “Freddie Freeloader” from Kind of Blue.) In many similar cases, I have found it easy to just dismiss the rapid succession of notes as noise, but right from the opening saxophone salvo on the title track, Coltrane manages to take complete control of your attention, thanks to his masterful ability to somehow summon surprising strands of melodic phrasing in the midst of his spectacular, spiraling solos. Perhaps most amazingly of all, Coltrane pulls and bends the other musicians along with him as he snakes through each track like he’s weaving in and out of a congested freeway at 100 MPH.