by Steve Pick
This is the third in an ongoing weekly series of reviews of a single album to represent each year of music critic / KDHX DJ / tallest guy in Euclid Records Steve Pick's life. He apologizes for missing the Sunday deadline, and promises to not let it happen again.
There is a tendency to think of Coltrane as inexorably rushing from the mainstream of hard bop jazz to the wildest avant-garde squonks. In the course of just over ten years, Coltrane recorded dozens of studio albums, and even more live performances, and there is clearly a progression from one thing to another which makes sense if you bother to listen to them all in order.
But, then again, stop, spend time with just one record at a time, and you're struck by the fact that no matter where Coltrane was on his journey, he was always right there in the moment, breathing vitality into the music, letting his restless mind explore the nooks and crannies of any composition he happened to touch.
So, we come to 1960, and Trane's first album for Atlantic Records. Having already zipped through the modal experiments with Miles Davis, Trane took things to the opposite extreme with "Giant Steps." There may be no wilder navigation of chord changes in the history of jazz, with virtually every note of the delightful tune shifting to a different harmony. Pianist Tommy Flanagan nailed the changes, as did the brilliant bassist Paul Chambers, who also helped drummer Art Taylor give this track such a powerful drive. But it is Coltrane's soaring tenor that really gets inside your skin as it goes falling and rising with that wonderful melody.
And then comes "Cousin Mary," a lighter, airier, and faster psuedo-blues, followed by the brief but frenetic "Countdown" on which Coltrane begins to shape the sheets of sound he would soon be briefly famous for. "Spiral" is another zipping number" and that's side one, four masterpieces of speed, technical prowess, and undeniable heart.
Side two opens with another hard bop gem, "Syeeda's Song Flute," which has some particularly tasty Flanagan piano before we switch gears entirely for one of the world's most beautiful ballads, "Naima." Here, Flanagan and Taylor are replaced by the great Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb (whom I inadvertently and foolishly misidentified last week as Philly Joe Jones on Kind of Blue). This cut, named after Trane's wife, is the sound of pure love, full of respect and devotion. Finally, we get one more burner from the regular band, the exhilarating "Mr. P.C." And Coltrane's first truly perfect set under his own name is through, ready to be flipped back and started over.
1960 was a great year for jazz LPs (and a pretty good one for rock, pop, and other genres) - check out this list of faves from the year, if you don't believe me - but Coltrane's Giant Steps belongs on a short list of greatest jazz albums ever made.