Saturday, December 17, 2011

John Coltrane - "Giant Steps"

A commentor recently took me severely to task for criticizing Jazz and cited "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane in particular as a great example of Jazz. So let's have a look at it. Here is a clip of the piece that shows the sax solo in notation:

Here is a discussion of Coltrane's approach to harmony in this and other pieces. The technique involves third-related harmonies which, since the relationships are symmetrical, avoids giving a sense of harmonic direction. The Wikipedia article on the Coltrane changes first describes the progression in "Giant Steps" as C, Eb7, Ab, B7, E, G7, C or, in terms of harmonic analysis: I, V of bVI, bVI, V of III, III, V7, I. Simplified a bit to show the movement down by major 3rds: I bVI, III (V7) I.

Later on in the article the chords given there are B maj 7, D7, G maj 7. Bb7, Eb maj 7, A min 7, D7 which is how they appear in the chart for "Giant Steps". The tenor sax is a transposing instrument in Bb, meaning that a written C sounds as a Bb, so if you want a C, you write a D. But that still doesn't get us to the progression in the chart. But never mind, let's just assume that in the first part of the Wikipedia article they transposed to C for simplicity. Here's another problem: the progression is described as falling major thirds or C, Ab, E, C (with an interpolated dominant). This progression is not unknown in Classical music, but usually in the form I, vi, IV, (V) I with first inversion chords interpolated. In diatonic harmony, this has a minor third and a major third. What I see in the progression given in the chart is, starting on B, up a minor 3rd, down a 5th, up a minor third, down a fifth, then a tritone, then a 4th. Also, the key seems to be G major, so the chords might be analyzed as III, V7 of I, I, V7 of bVI, bVI, ii, V7. I'm starting to see why in Jazz they don't analyze in terms of functional harmony!

So what John Coltrane has done is developed a harmonic structure with some interesting symmetries that tends to dilute the sense of tonic. I think the problems trying to analyze it start with the fact that in Jazz it seems to be the case that the idea of chord inversion is not significant. In other words, the idea of root movement is pretty weak. I say this because the bass and piano are free to play any element of the harmony as the lowest note. Similarly, so is the idea of cadence. The ends of sections are not marked with strong cadences--the closest we get seems to be a half-cadence. This suits the improvisational, open-ended character of Jazz.

But I still find it fundamentally unsatisfying because you can have open-ended music or you can have goal-directed music, but you can't really have both. So, forgive me, but what I hear when I listen to "Giant Steps" is some very cool music with a lot of character, but music that has no real direction. Intentionally has no direction, I believe, because the function of the non-functional, symmetrical harmonies is to remove that sense of real harmonic direction and movement that we find in Classical harmony. Fair enough. But when you take that away, what I hear is a jittery surface with no underpinnings...


Anonymous said...

Seems like jazz lovers are getting their feathers ruffled a :-)

You're certainly right that Coltrane is trying hard to break from classical harmonies. In fact in Giant steps he is trying to break from bebop harmonies, too, in particular the ii/V/I cadence. The tune has a definite anti Charlie Parker feel. It's a radically innnovative tune with impeccable harmonic logic, however. Roughly, Coltrane rewrites the standard jazz cycle, ii-V7-I-i-IV7... by using a tritone sub in order to produce a major-3rd cycle. This had NEVER been done before: not in jazz, not in classical music. To make matters even worse, Coltrane wants his modulations to be hard-edged jarring, and leaves it to his bassist Paul Chambers to do the voice leading with endless chord inversions (there, I must correct you: chord inversions and voice leading are ubiquitous in jazz). But Coltrane goes fast and it takes some ear training to hear them. The tune modulates every second on average! (Even Wagner didn't do that.) I am afraid I must again correct you: the tune begins in the key of B and not in G. (We know this from the final F#7) and cycles through the keys of B,G,Eb.

Giant Steps was an experiment, but one based on a complete mastery of harmony. Coltrane expects his listeners to be intimately familiar with bebop. Jazz is a very elite kind of music: it's impossibly hard to master for the musician and makes huge demands on the listener. If your musical memory can't, on its own, fill in the parts left intentionally missing from a Coltrane or Mingus piece, then enjoying the piece can be quite difficult. Jazz has an interesting history and there's a reason why the music got to make more and more demands on the listeners (a story for another day), but prior to internalizing Coltrane's digital patterns it is hard to spot much functional harmony in his work (even though it is absolutely replete with it).

Bryan Townsend said...

This is what I love about this kind of blogging. Thanks Anonymous! I love to be corrected, because that means I end up having a better conception of things. OK, right, yes of course the piece is in B major. I was puzzling why the progression ended with F#. By "tritone sub" I guess you mean tritone substitution? And what is the tritone substituting for? The dominant? As to the major third cycle, there are some examples in Classical music. You can get the division of the octave into major thirds with the use of bVI mixture. For example, the first movement of the Schubert String Quartet D. 887.

It would help a lot to have a transcription that includes the bass line and piano part, to sort out the inversions in the bass line.

Thanks so much for the detailed explanation. I'm going to go back and have another look at "Giant Steps". No-one would be happier than me to discover some new ways of structuring harmony.

Anonymous said...

What a dork you are sir.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, but at least I'm not an anonymous dork!

Unknown said...

It's going to F# to pull back into the B, the same way say G7 pulls to C. That is the cadence and it's just a good ole cadence, it's just doesn't feel like it because it happens very fast and because the B that it resolves to only lasts for a beat. Coltrane got the idea from an older jazz tune that didn't solo over the chords (Green Dolphin Street I think). Also, French Impressionists like Debussy used the major 3rds cycle in some of their compositions and Coltrane was known to play lines out of Stravinsky for practice (I'm sure Strav used the major 3rd cycle somewhere). Also, he'd been practicing out of Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which has about every Interpolation you could think of. The reasoning for the constant changing harmony is that most phrases have to begin in one key but end or transition into the next phrase in another, which is why it took Coltrane about a year of intense practice and suffering from headaches to be able to play through these chords. Also, remember he's playing a sax and not a guitar or piano where you can "see" the changes and patterns. and he's improvising over it. There's also an underlying harmonic structural aesthetic, if you take the 12 musical notes and put them in a circle, either chromatically or in a circle of fifths or fourths, you end up with a perfect triangle. The three major scales together also include every note. The church modes (modes of the major scale) in order of bright to dark are Lydian, Major, Mixolydian, Dorian, Minor, Phrygian and then Locrian. Bach use to explain this concept in use as musical chairs. It creates tension and release. Looking at the three major chords B, G, and Eb, say from the starting point of Bmaj - Bmaj can be played as good ole Bmajor, then when it switches to G, the Bmajor now becomes a B Phrygian, then when it switches to Ebmajor, the B goes completely missing and now we are in the nearest spots of C Minor or A# Mixolydian. In other words, the B's roll as root to itself is light, it's role in G Major is the major 3rd, which is considered light in the context of G, but in the context of a change from Bmaj to Gmaj, the B becomes dark, then it goes missing and the tension rises as Eb major hits. Because the three roots make a perfect triangle they all maintain the same relationship with each other in terms of dark to light which is where the feeling of "jittery surface with no underpinnings" comes from, which I believe was the purpose, feeling wise, of Giant Steps.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Grenade Hand, for clearing a few things up! I think I get at least part of what you are talking about. You are using terminology in a different way than what I am used to. One thing for sure, a lot of people in different areas were working on symmetrical approaches to harmony. You mention Debussy, but Bartók was another and of course the serialists often looked for symmetrical tone rows which gives some similar effects. All of this kind of experimentation seems to have died down in recent decades.

I am curious as to your comment on "bright to dark". What exactly in the modes makes you want to characterize as bright or dark? Is it the minor effect? The Russians often went for modes that increased intensity by lowering a lot of notes similar to what we have with the Phrygian and Locrian modes.

Unknown said...

Classicaly, the "brightness & darkness" of the modes relates to tension and release. They are ordered in terms of the amount of sharps to the amount of flats. i.e. the Lydian scale has "the most sharps" and on the other end of the spectrum the Locrian scale has "the most flats"...So the more # the brighter, the more b the darker.
For example, in switching from Phrygian to Locrian, you would be theoretically making it darker, or more tense. Say you were in A minor, and switch that to an A Harmonic Phrygian (Pulling to Dminor) and then switched it to an A Locrian (pulling to Gminor or A#major), then capped it off with an Fmajor Lydian (implying Cmajor) to an E major (implying E Harmonic Phrygian) to pull back to Aminor This would take you through a little maze of tension and real ease, light and shade. You can feel this by strumming I Am I A7 I Gm I A#-F I E I .
Basically, it's a way to switch to different keys, which raises or resolves tension and keeps things interesting.
Another example would be if you were doing a Bachish thing in Cmajor, then went to C Lydian (implying Gmajor), then went back to Cmajor with a G7 (G Mixolydian implying Cmajor).

i.e. Cmaj - Fmaj - Cmaj - Gmaj
and then it happens on this turnaround
CLydian - G7

Hope that makes sense

Unknown said...

Look at like this:

LYDIAN: C-D- E- F#-G- A- B
MAJOR: C-D- E- F- G- A- B
DORIAN: C-D- Eb-F- G- A- Bb
MINOR: C-D- Eb-F- G- Ab-Bb
LOCRIAN: C-Db-Eb-F- Gb-Ab-Bb

As you can see, it starts at the brightest end with the C Lydian mode with 1 sharp, then no sharps or flats in C major, then it progressively adds more flats until at the dark end in the Locrian mode, all of the Penatonic, or black keys on a piano, are present.

Bryan Townsend said...

It helps me to think of all this in terms of intervals. What you are calling C Lydian is the Lydian mode starting on C, of course. What makes it "bright" presumably, is the raised 4th. The Lydian mode has an augmented 4th interval. Then you list the major mode. Next is Mixolydian, which is the major mode with a lowered 7th degree. The Dorian adds a lowered 3rd degree. The Phrygian a lowered second degree and the Locrian a diminished 5th.

So the more scale degrees you lower, the "darker" the mode. Makes sense. But the Russians have gone much further. For example, here is a mode postulated by Dolzhansky that he calls the "Aeolian double-lowered melodic": B C# D Eb F F# G A Bb

The Russians have a whole bunch of not only 7-note modes, but also eight and nine note modes.

Unknown said...

The "Aeolian double-lowered melodic" can be heard in a lot of eastern music. For example, there is a piece on an album by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin called East Meets West that makes use of that scale

Bryan Townsend said...

I had forgotten about that album! What piece are they using the Aeolian double-lowered melodic on?

Unknown said...

You know I forgot what track it was... my dad had East Meets West when I was a kid

Anonymous said...

"Not all who wander are lost!" What you are hearing is called groove. There is a goal but it's to get you to swing. Just get your toes tapping and maybe help free the mind for a little while. If you listen to a funk/disco tune like Chic's "Good Times" what you are hearing is swing with a backbeat. That seems like a contradiction but that's what's happening. If you want some closure listen to Coltrane's "I Want to Talk About You." But "Giant Steps", "The Promise" and even "Naima"... Those are groove record. Peace.