Coltrane’s technical masterpiece offers many challenges—and enormous inspiration.
• Learn to move fluently through Coltrane’s “three tonic” system.
• Develop a more bebop-influenced vocabulary.
• Understand how to use chromatic approach chords in your comping.
Saxophonist John Coltrane released his seminal album, Giant Steps, in January of 1960. Since then, the title track has served as something of a measuring stick for improvisers. At first, most are scared of the brisk tempo and lightning-quick chord changes, but if you’re able to crack the code and gain a glimpse of Coltrane’s process, it’s not as hard as you think.
Most jazz standards are based off a certain harmonic language that focuses on root movements of either a fourth or fifth. Coltrane used a series of key centers moving in thirds for “Giant Steps.” In this lesson, we’ll explore a single-note solo and comping etude that demonstrate a few essential ideas you can use while decoding the Code of Coltrane.
In the fourth measure, there’s a line inspired by the great saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Over the D7, start on the 3 (F#) before hitting the b9 (Eb) for some extra tension. Resolve with a b7 (C) to 3 (B) move on the Gmaj7 in the next measure. Classic bebop.
Remember that trick of playing an idea over the IIm chord and then moving it up a minor third for the V chord? Me too. In measure 12, I took the phrase played over the C#m7 chord and repurposed it over the F#7. This creates some tension, thanks to a b9.
The Devil’s Interval
Tritone substitutions: I love them when they’re used correctly. In measure 20, notice how we’re playing an Ab major triad (Ab–C–Eb) over the D7. Remember, a tritone sub (aka “a flat-five substitution”) can work both ways. Playing an Ab major triad over D7 works just as well as a D major triad over Ab7. From there, target the 5 (D) of the Gmaj7 chord in the next measure.
Three of a Perfect Pair
Triad pairs offer a great way to play wider intervals and imply interesting harmonies. In measure 27, we play a G major triad (G–B–D) and an A major triad (A–C#–E) to imply the sound of G Lydian (G–A–B–C#–D–E–F#). Notice how all the notes except for the 7 are present and accounted for, and how the A major triad gives you the 9, #11, and 13. Very tasty tensions.
Two Names, One Chord
When playing standards, you’ll likely spend more time comping than soloing. “Giant Steps” is a great vehicle to work on voice-leading, substitutions, and II-V-Is. In the fourth measure, once again we call on the trusty tritone sub to create a compelling sound over the IIm-V7-I in the key of G major. Instead of playing a vanilla D7 (V7), keep the 3 and 7 (F# and C, respectively), and play an Ab13, which adds a 13 (F) and 9 (Bb) on top. You can think of this as a D7b5#9, but thinking of it as an Ab13 makes it easier to visualize single-note lines.
Measure 14 contains a IIm-V-I in Eb. Here we use a quartal voicing (where each note is a fourth apart) for the Fm11. Over the V (Bb7), move the lower three notes of the Fm11 up a fret to create a dead-simple grip for an altered dominant chord. If you look closely, you'll see the root is entirely absent, which lets us focus on the colorful tensions of #5, b9, and b5. Move back to a quartal voicing for the Eb6/9—a slick trick for sounding harmonically sophisticated.
Don’t forget that you can use chromaticism in comping just as easily as in improvised lines. A brief example happens in measure 30. Again, we’re thinking of a IIm-V-I in Eb. Here we approach the Fm11 by a half-step below and then lead into the Eb6/9 chord from a half-step above. But a little of this goes a long way: Apply this half-step approach technique in moderation because it can become a bit predictable—or even annoying—when overused.