Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Join the dots...

This video shows an animation of the score to 'Giant Steps' by John Coltrane. This is, at the moment at least, my favourite jazz tune - I tend to change my mind about these things and find speaking in absolutes very hard. I simply cannot do those 'top 5' lists! Firstly, I think that this tune shows Coltrane's very real genius: the 'sheets of sound'; the almost ludicrously flexible harmonic structure; the chords shifting like a milling crowd.

Usually, the bass player instinct that is hard wired in me hones in on the rhythm section - the bass and the drums. The guys playing on this track - the great Paul Chambers on upright and Art Taylor on drums - put in an unbelievable performance. They bubble along like a simmering pot on a stove and never lose sight of the tune's progression. It sounds effortless, easy even. Tommy Flanagan on piano almost joins the rhythm section in this case, and, aside from the solo, marks the passing of the chords with guttural stabs. However, for once, my ears are dragged kicking and screaming from the mysteriously arcane and dingy world of the rhythm section and into the strange and uncomfortably brightly lit world of melody and harmony. Coltrane's playing is staggering. He rides over the changes like a surfer on a wave; effortless and yet pushing it as far as he possibly can. I cannot even begin to understand what's going on with this tune, let alone explain it.

So, yes, this is about the best piece of music I can think of right now. What strikes me about this video is how much simplifying has to occur to transcribe what Coltrane is playing. I'm a poor reader of music, yet even I can appreciate how much of Coltrane's playing has gone missing when it is written down. It is very close, but to write every inflection and nuance of what is going on down on the manuscript would render it unreadable to even the most accomplished of readers. Just goes to show: it doesn't matter how much education or expertise one has on paper, real genius cannot be imitated or transcribed. There is simply too much to write down and not enough symbols to give the reader the true colours; a cheap Polaroid of a masterpiece.

Use your ears, folks, and do it for real!


  1. This would be closer to the score:

  2. And, while I'm in a Giant Stepping mood, check this out:

    Be warned though: it is almost certainly the most amazing piece of skill you will ever see. After watching it, you may as well stop bothering to do whatever it is you do. There is no point anymore.


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