Dec 3, 2013

Jazz PIano Online: Giant Steps And Symmetry

Giant Steps is a mountain in jazz like Everest and K2 in the Himalyas. Giant Steps, Everest, and K2 - they're thresholds of skill and technique. Some climb the peaks. Some don't make it.

Giant Steps Recordings

The recording of Giant Steps by John Coltrane is how most listeners come to Giant Steps - John Coltrane is the reference point. But there are many great versions out there with astounding variety. For example:
Jerry BergonziJean Michel PilcTommy FlanaganMike Stern
Bob Mintzer w/Mike BreckerBetty Carter and Geri Allen. Pat Methany
Gonzalo RubencalaStevie Wonder. Ravi ColtraneThe New York Voices
Michel Petrucciani. Damien Draghici w/Eddie Daniels. McCoy Tyner
Tete Montoliu. Swiss Army Big Band. Jaki Byard. Kenny Garrett and Kenny Kirkland.
Pharoah Sanders. Archie Shepp. Dr. Lonnie Smith. Michel Camilo.  Kevin Wyatt
Adam Macowicz. Chick Corea.

Tradition And Giant Steps

Giant Steps now is elemental like the blues -  it's embedded deeply into the jazz tradition. But how exactly Giant Steps came to the tradition and what it is in the tradition are still open questions.

In the tradition of the classical side, Paul Wittgenstein - Ludwig Wittgenstein's brother - was one of the great pianists of his generation even after he lost an arm in the First World War.

Maurice Ravel wrote a left-hand only piano concerto for him. He recorded Brahms' left-hand piano arrangement of J.S. Bach's Dm Chaconne. To hear a recording of Wittgenstein is to hear that tradition. It has a different sound and feel than we're used to in the 21st century.

On Green Dolphin Street - the Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis versions - sits in the jazz tradition in the same way Wittgenstein's Bach sits in the classical tradition. The thing is, On Green Dolphin Street and the Bach Chaconne are mainstream repertoire personalised by great artists.

Giant Steps by John Coltrane - in contrast to On Green Dolphin Street by Ahmad Jamal or Miles Davis or the Dm Bach Chaconne played by Paul Wittgenstein - is another thing entirely.

Giant Steps as John Coltrane played it isn't about personalising existing repertoire or reaffirming what exists. It's about pushing on - "to boldly go" like the famous split infinitive commands   - to the unexplored - the unknown. Giant Steps - it's a "break on through to the other side" kind of tune.

Symmetry Instead of Tonality

The new territory Giant Steps brought to the jazz tradition came from its rigorous exploration of basic jazz building blocks - ii-V-I chord progressions. However, in Giant Steps ii-V-I chord progressions articulate symmetry rather than tonality.

There's no place in Giant Steps where the ear says "this is a new key" or "here's a point of arrival" or "there's a departure." Giant Steps is perpetual motion; chord changes repeat over and over again without ever establishing key centre or home tonality

George Russell And Express And Local Trains

I remember George Russell in a class at the New England Conservatory explaining Giant Steps. An analogy he used was to compare Giant Steps to local and express subway stops. For GR Giant Steps was an express train. No local stops.

A way to see what GR was explaining is: Plot out B, Eb, and G - the three Giant Steps building blocks - on a circle of fifths diagram. B, Eb, and G are four stops (sharps or flats) away from each other. Draw lines between them and a triangle shows up in the middle of the circle. The triangle describes an augmented triad - a major third higher and a major third lower than a central pitch.

If Eb is the centre pitch - the axis of symmetry, as it were - G could be the pitch that's a major third higher. B could be the pitch that's a major third lower.

To see the same thing in a different geometry unwind the circle and flatten it into a line. The three express stops in Giant Steps - the B, Eb, and G - each skip over three local stops.

B   F#/Gb   Db   Ab   Eb   Bb   F   C   G   D   A   E 

More Symmetry

To see more symmetry in Giant Steps is to pull it apart into sixteen, eight, four, and two measure chunks.

Chunked out to sixteen measures, which is the tune as John Coltrane wrote it Giant Steps travels from a starting point at B (1st measure) through a sequence of chords to to an endpoint at Eb (15th measure).

|  Bma7   D7    | Gma7    Bb7   |  Ebma7    |   A-7   D7   |
|  Gma7   Bb7 | Ebma7   F#7   |  Bma7      |   F-7   Bb7  |
|  Ebma7         | A-7         D7     |  Gma7     |   C#-7  F#7 |
|  Bma7           |  F-7         Bb7   |  Ebma7   |   C#-7  F#7 |

Chunked out as two eight-measure sections Giant Steps travels from a starting point at B (1st measure) to an endpoint at B (7th measure). Then it goes from another starting point at Eb (9th measure) to another endpoint at Eb (15th measure).

|  Bma7   D7    | Gma7    Bb7   |  Ebma7    |   A-7   D7   |
|  Gma7   Bb7 | Ebma7   F#7   |  Bma7      |   F-7   Bb7  |
|  Ebma7         | A-7         D7     |  Gma7     |   C#-7  F#7 |
|  Bma7           |  F-7         Bb7   |  Ebma7   |   C#-7  F#7 |

Chunked out as four four-measure sections Giant Steps is about traveling through the notes of an augmented triad. - from B to G to Eb and then back to B (which is what the circle and line diagrams show).

| Bma7    D7   | Gma7    Bb7   |  Ebma7  |   A-7   D7   |
| Gma7   Bb7 | Ebma7   F#7   |  Bma7    |   F-7   Bb7  |
| Ebma7         |  A-7        D7     |  Gma7    |  C#-7  F#7 |
| Bma7           |  F-7         Bb7   |  Ebma7  |  C#-7  F#7 |

Chunked out as eight two-measure sections Giant Steps makes two round trips through augmented triads. The first is B to Eb to G and back to B. The second is Eb to G to B and back to Eb.

| Bma7    D7   |  Gma7    Bb7   |  Ebma7   |  A-7   D7    |
| Gma7   Bb7 |  Ebma7   F#7   |  Bma7     |  F-7    Bb7  |
| Ebma7         |  A-7         D7     |  Gma7    |  C#-7  F#7  |
| Bma7           |  F-7         Bb7    |  Ebma7  |  C#-7  F#7  |

That theory behind Giant Steps shows that no matter the scale at which you look at it - whether as chunks two, four, eight, or sixteen measures long, Giant Steps is about traversing tonalities a major third away from each other. The tonalities are symmetrical - any one of them sits on an axis exactly between the other two. That's just the way it is with augmented triads.

Have You Met Miss Jones And Nicholas Slonimsky

Some say Giant Steps is influenced by or related in some way to the the bridge of Have You Met Miss Jones (for example, as Dave Demsey describes in John Coltrane Plays Giant Steps).

So the first four chords of Giant Steps transposed down a half step (shown here)

|  Bbma7   |   Db7           |  Gbma7  |  A7           |  Dmaj7  |

could be plucked right out of the Have You Met Miss Jones bridge.

|  Bbma7   |  Ab-7 Db7   |  Gbma7   |  E-7  A7  |  Dma7  | Ab-7 Db7  |  Gbma7  |  G-7 C7  |

It's also been said (in John Coltrane Plays Giant Steps, for example) that the second half of Giant Steps comes verbatim from Nicholas Slonimsky's introduction to his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns -  a book John Coltrane was known to have worked from in his practice routines.

From Nicholas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns

So these are among the different pieces that may have influenced John Coltrane when he created Giant Steps. But other than anecdotes that have been told and passed along how John Coltrane conceived of Giant Steps, how he heard it, and how he put it together - that's still mystery.

Unconvincing Numbers

Maybe I should add - and I may well be on a limb and out of step with current thought - that I don't find 12-tone and pitch-class set analysis of Giant Steps to be compelling or convincing. Those analyses, best as I can tell, latch on to statistics. They rely on a belief in numerical mysticism and acceptance of coincidence as more than coincidence.

The thing about statistical analysis is it can be misleading. Statistical data is only interpretation - except it's presented numerically with probabilities. To really catch probabilities in a meaningful way means there there has to be a properly-sized data set.

The problem with Giant Steps and statistical analysis is there isn't enough data to dig into the probability of this or that. Because end of day Giant Steps is sixteen measures long. And that's it.

A twelve-tone analysis of a classical piece of music, a composition by Arnold Schoenberg for example, would be able to examine themes and expositions. There'd be development sections and transformational passages. Recapitulatory material. Perhaps a coda. All of that unfolds in time when a composition is heard. It's narrative, a story line.

But to point out the obvious, the narrative - the story line - in Giant Steps gets added later as improvisation which comes AFTER the tune's been composed. Giant Steps, miraculous as it is in sixteen measures - is a framework for improvisation. It's not a large-scale composition based on twelve-tone technique.

I point this out because Giant Steps by any measure is a miracle. It's ones of the great works of jazz and by extension one of the major accomplishments of the 20th century. To explain the miracle - its accomplishment through coincidences - such as those that can come from twelve-tone and pitch-class analysis - obscures whatever it is that Giant Step actually is.

The thing is: When something is symmetrical it has, well, all of the properties that make it symmetrical. Which means there will be things on one side that add up to and mirror things on the other side. That's what symmetry is: a mirror reflection centred on or around an axis of symmetry.

How To Play Giant Steps?

There are a lot of Youtube videos on that. Two particularly interesting ones feature Vijay Ayer and Barry Harris.

Vijay Iyer

The Vijay Iyer video begins with his performance of Giant Steps followed by a Q/A session. The big point VJI makes is it's ok to play what falls easily under the hand. That might not sound like much but it's brilliantly simple. But then again, VJI is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow.

The thing about hand position at the piano is it doesn't often get discussed. When it is mentioned it's to the idea of acquiring technique to overcome the limitations of any single hand position.

Which is what makes advice from VJI special. It's simply a matter of making music with the resources you have. For a pianist those resources, literally, are in hand.

Barry Harris

The Barry Harris Giant Steps clip is fascinating if only because BH says he doesn't "know the song." He definitely give the impression he's not fond of Giant Steps.

But, those are details. What's interesting and very useful is Barry Harris' critique of the exercise-like approach many superimpose onto Giant Steps.

His solution, which he demonstrates, is simply to play on and with common tones to make coherent melodies. That rather than running up, down, around, and under, and over the scales and arpeggios that fit to the chord changes.

Barry Harris makes it sound easy.

What Else?

A post I write a short while ago about symmetry, Arnold Schoenberg, Barry Harris, John Coltrane, and Nicholas Slonimsky.

Corey Mwamba has a really interesting take on John Coltrane's chord changes in Satellite (his re-composition of High High The Moon). Corey makes really good points to why seconds and fourths - and not major thirds - may actually be the foundational stuff.

For better, for worse - my solo piano recording of Giant Steps on Youtube.

Comments, if you want to leave them, are welcome and invited.

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