Back at Carnegie Hall today, for the fifth time, and the first since 2015, to perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This will be the second time I’ve sung Russian here. Previous visits:
Each of those performances brought something different. The first two, conducted by James Levine, showed how the BSO had transformed under his conducting. The “Missa” was about frailty in the middle of the strength of that monumental score; after Kurt Masur withdrew due to progressing complications of Parkinson’s, the performance was conducted by TFC musical director John Oliver, who would step down from the chorus he founded three years later and be dead in six. The Nevsky happened the fall after JO’s retirement and at the beginning of Andris Nelson’s tenure.
When I last wrote about Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach, I didn’t write very much about the music. It’s hard to write about funny stuff, it turns out! And P.D.Q. Bach was solidly in that camp; as Schickele once said, where other composers wrote in the musica seria tradition, P.D.Q. Bach wrote in the musica funnia. This album proves that, maybe even more dramatically than the debut record.
Schickele (born in 1935) had been writing parodic music in the Baroque vein since he was a teenager; his earliest work, the “Sanka” Cantata, was recorded with his brother David in 1954, when he was just 19. The first P.D.Q. Bach concert recording, reviewed last week, happened when Schickele was 30, at which point a good part of the musical identity of the composer had been established: familiar or familiar-sounding themes, upended by comic settings that never quite seemed to do the expected thing, or by the equivalent of orchestral slapstick (deliberately wrong notes, jarring chords, the orchestra losing its place), or by some of the many unique instruments that Schickele invented: the tromboon, the double-reed slide music stand, the windbreaker. There was even the omnipresent “bargain counter tenor,” John Ferrante.
But for my money, P.D.Q. Bach didn’t become legendary until the publication of his first works for chorus. That may be because the P.D.Q. album my family owned, A Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach, begins and ends with choral works (the “Missa Hilarious” and “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols”). Or it may be because the additional dimension of demented libretti causes ganglions in the left brain to giggle. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the Okay Chorale on the first track of An Hysteric Return is cause for rejoicing.
The chorus is here to perform P.D.Q.’s oratorio The Seasonings (S. 1/2 tsp.). Like the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” from the debut album, the oratorio features John Ferrante, whose recitatives set up the plot, such as it is, of the oratorio, and drive the encounters with soloists Lorna Haywood, Marlena Kleinman and William Woolf. The oratorio is full of groaning puns that are the equivalent of baroque “dad jokes” — “Open sesame seeds,” “Bide thy thyme,” “Tarragon of virtue it is full.” But the chorus steals the show on the slow movement “By the leeks of Babylon” and in the finale, “To curry favor, favor curry.”
As on the first album, Schickele takes the opportunity to “slip a little something of my own on… which I also wrote,” and as with his Quodlibet, the “Unbegun” Symphony is a collection of famous themes, expertly woven together in indescribably funny ways. To this day, I can’t hear the theme of Brahms’ second symphony without overlaying “Beautiful Dreamer” on it… or expecting it to segue into “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”
The concert concludes with the “Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons” (S. 66), a work which substantially expands the concert repertoire for bagpipes while attempting to establish the bicycle (here used to power a siren—the faster the performer pedals, the higher the pitch) or the balloons as viable solo instruments, an effort that is a complete and utter failure. As comedy instruments, though, they’re pure gold, and the ending, featuring three balloons exhausting their air through pitch pipes in a major chord, is worth the price of admission over and over again.
With An Hysteric Return, Schickele established that P.D.Q.’s hilarity wasn’t just an interesting accident, but a formula that could reliably deliver laugh after laugh. He went on to prove this in a series of nine additional albums for Vanguard records, some of which were absolutely hysterical (see: Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach) and some of which were less so (for my money, Music You Can’t Get Out of Your Head risks riding the joke too long). But he still had enough gas in the tank for at least one more masterpiece, and we’ll hear it the next time this bonus feature returns.
The repercussions of John Coltrane’s reach into avant-garde jazz, and subsequent backlash from some critics, can be traced in his early career in the 1960s, as albums after Africa/Brass took a different approach and recordings from the 1961 residencies went unpublished for several years. It’s tempting to read McCoy Tyner’s Impulse! recordings through the same lens, imagining that his substantial talents in forcefully modal jazz were suppressed by the label. Some critics have read the early Tyner recordings as evidence that he was insufficiently innovative for Coltrane’s group, foresaging his eventual departure.
The truth of the matter appears to have been mundanely commercial. Creed Taylor had left Impulse! in the summer of 1961, and his successor, Bob Thiele, asked Tyner to record more straightforward jazz albums. —I should note something about the classic Impulse! recordings before I go any further. Like Blue Note before it and CTI after, Impulse! under Taylor and his successors created a distinctive graphic identity through the use of photography, typography, design, and the overall excellence of the physical package, and Reaching Fourth is no exception. Released in a gatefold cover with striking photography and text against a black background, and the orange, black and white “house style” design on the back, it’s a gorgeous package, and the design holds up even in my 1974 reissued copy.
Whatever the impetus of the album, Reaching Fourth is a mix of standards and intriguing Tyner originals, recorded as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes. Grimes, who would go on to build an important career in free jazz as a member of groups led by Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and others had come to fame at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and its accompanying documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Word spread about his amazing playing and he ended up playing with six different groups throughout the festival. Haynes, who had been playing since his debut in his native Boston in 1942, had recorded with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Sarah Vaughan. (He is still going strong; his 95th birthday party in 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19. I saw him play in that same 1993 jazz festival at UVA, where he clearly could outplay all the young musicians in his band.)
The title track is a Tyner composition that seems designed to showcase the more imaginative side of his writing and performance. It bears some of his early hallmarks—unusual modal voicings, a brisk tempo, high velocity runs. But it also benefits from the excellence of his collaborators. Haynes’ drumming stays on the off beat and punctuates Tyner’s solo with brisk snare rolls, while Grimes’ fiercely percussive plucked accompaniment turns into a fiery bowed solo. Haynes trades eights with both Grimes and Tyner, exploring the full tonal color of his kit in the process.
“Goodbye”, written by Gordon Jenkins after the death of his first wife, changes the pace to a meditative rumination. The tune and chords swing from minor in the verse to major in the chorus and back, as though discovering different facets of grief in each new bar. Tyner’s playing has a sensitive touch even as he traces the contours and changes of the tune, and Haynes and Grimes are quietly supportive. It’s a deep sigh of a tune.
“Theme for Ernie,” written by guitarist Fred Lacey for saxophonist Ernie Henry, is a bubbly tune that’s given a bouncy reading. Tyner’s playing pulls at the corners of the melody with brisk runs, accompanied by Grimes at his most buoyant. Grimes’ solo is melodically indebted to Scott LaFaro; indeed, this track brings to mind some of the telepathic interchange between LaFaro and Bill Evans on their trio recordings.
Tyner’s other original, “Blues Back,” is a straight blues, and Grimes especially plays it straight, sounding each note as though tolling a bell. Tyner, by contrast, shows how this blues swings into different modes almost with every measure, even creating a Mixolydian counter-melody in the fourth chorus of his solo. Grimes takes a two-chorus solo that explores some of Tyner’s melodic ideas before the trio returns to the theme once more.
“Old Devil Moon” (which the track listing tells us is from the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow) is more commonly remembered as a tune in Frank Sinatra’s catalog; before Sinatra, Miles recorded it in 1953 on his Prestige Records release The Miles Davis Quartet. Tyner takes the tune in a completely different direction, opening with a modal progression between bass and piano, before returning to the main melody. Grimes’ bass line remains constant between the more traditional sections and the modal interludes, providing a pedal point against which Tyner stretches the melody. Haynes helps the forward motion, keeping a steady rhythm with a little trip against the snare in the fourth beat of each measure. Together, the group seems to lean from the straight and narrow into more exciting territory, then to settle back into the straight paths as though with a grin.
“Have You Met Miss Jones” closes out the album; Tyner takes the Rodgers and Hart classic from 1937’s I’d Rather Be Right and dispatches it at breakneck speed. In the coda, Grimes plays octaves around which Tyner improvises a modal melody, wrapping up the whole thing in less than four minutes. It’s a remarkable exercise in economy and a lot of fun too.
After listening to Tyner’s early work with Coltrane, listening to his early trio recordings for Impulse! can initially feel like a step back to an earlier, simpler conception of jazz. Reaching Fourth repays careful listening, showing off his innovative ear and unique compositional gifts; we’ll hear more of both as we listen to more of the recordings in the catalog. Next week we’ll pick up Coltrane’s story where we left off, finding him in a very different territory than the New York clubs that hosted his last explorations.
When I read this week that Peter Schickele had died at the age of 88, it felt like a part of my childhood had been ended. My parents had the Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach album which we listened to incessantly, and it became part of my formative education in comedy, alongside records from the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby (I know, I know). We went to see Schickele perform with the Norfolk Symphony in Chrysler Hall sometime in the late 1980s. I had taken the PSAT earlier that day, and felt a little woozy watching the concert from the balcony; came home and realized I was running a 103º fever — so I don’t have clear memories of the performance. What I do remember is that it was slapstick funny, clever funny, and sometimes both at once.
That holds true for most of Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach recordings, and maybe especially for the first two. Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?) was recorded live in concert at Town Hall in New York, with a chamber orchestra under the direction of Jorge Mester. The program consists of three works from the high flowering of P.D.Q.’s dubious genius; in addition, Schickele notes in the hilarious introduction to the second side, “I convinced them to let me put something of my own on.”
The “Concerto for Horn and Hardart (S.27)” could be the quintessential P.D.Q. orchestral work: suspiciously familiar themes, obnoxious instruments, odd harmonizations, “mistakes” from the orchestra (I have always laughed uproariously that the broken cadenza from the strings in the first movement that is set right by the conductor yelling “One, two, three, four!”). By contrast, the “Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn (S. 53,162)” provides the added dimension of comic vocal performance, courtesy of the late lamented “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante and some truly inspired mangled writing (“Oh, ye gods! Who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running, running, running, knows…”)
Schickele’s “Quodlibet for Small Orchestra” exploits the brilliant professor’s talent for comic juxtaposition of familiar themes in unfamiliar ways. Finally, the “Sinfonia Concertante (S.98.6)” derives much of its humor from the weird array of instruments on stage; as Schickele observes, the bagpipes present a serious “problem of balance which P.D.Q. made no attempt whatsoever to resolve,” while the lute was so quiet that “you can’t hear it if there’s another instrument in the room with it, regardless of whether it’s playing or not.” The work is notable for the first appearance of the double-reed slide music stand, pictured below:
All in all, the record is a great intro to the lunacy that is P.D.Q. Bach and a subtle testament to the genius of his “discoverer,” Peter Schickele. I have a few more of the original records in my collection that we’ll spin in the coming days.
In the early 1960s, John Coltrane’s studio recordings were expressive and harmonically innovative, but still followed a recognizable jazz form: statement of the melody, or head; solos that were structured around the chords of the melody; a recapitulation of the head. But other musicians were starting to innovate on that form, moving away from the structure of playing over the chord changes. Miles moved to improvisation over modal scales, as we’ve seen. And other musicians went even further, rejecting consistent chords in favor of more unlimited explorations. Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz gave the movement a name, and others explored its ideas. One of the most promising of them was saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy. And when Dolphy met Trane, it changed the older composer’s trajectory.
Trane and Dolphy had met years previously in Los Angeles, and when Trane began performing in New York in the summer of 1961, he invited Dolphy to join his group. Additionally, his group included two bassists; Trane liked the freedom the second bass offered to have both a constant “ground” or repeated fundamental note in the chord, while the other bassist was free to be a more melodic voice. So the group included Dolphy, Reggie Workman (who had replaced Steve Davis), Art Davis, and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from Trane’s quartet, last heard on Coltrane’s Sound.
Until recently, the main documentation for Trane’s New York sessions with Dolphy consisted of recordings from his residencies at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 1961, including 1962’s Live! At the Village Vanguard and half the tracks on 1963’s Impressions; both recordings have Jimmy Garrison replacing Art Davis. But last year a recording was found at the New York Public Library of an earlier residency, from July 1961, at the Village Gate. The recording shows off Trane’s emerging free concept at a transitional moment. Much of the repertoire is familiar from his 1961 releases, but the performances are very different.
Where the studio version of “My Favorite Things” begins with a modal progression and a clear statement of the theme, this live version jumps right in with an extended Eric Dolphy flute solo. It’s actually not clear from the recording whether the song begins here or if the recording started after the statement of the theme, but he improvises for an extended period over the minor chords of theme, eventually coming into a statement of the second eight bars of the melody (ending in “these are a few of my favorite things”) before entering another extended improvisation. He finally brings this solo to a close some six minutes in, and Trane steps up on soprano sax, stating the theme before signalling the beginning of his improvisation with a sustained blast on the tonic. His solo hugs the high end of the range, stretching out the ideas in his solos on the studio version. A phrase that might have occupied a measure or two on My Favorite Things here gets extended to 16 or 32 bars, with Trane continually extending and searching forward. Beneath the solos, Elvin Jones continually propels the beat forward. On this archival recording live recording, the bass is less audible than if Rudy Van Gelder were taping, but you can hear both the constant ground and the melodic improvisation of the two players.
“When Lights are Low” has both a straight version of the melody and a keening dervish-like improvisation from Trane’s soprano sax. Dolphy anchors the low end of the line with his bass clarinet, underpinning the dizzying improvisation of Trane’s soprano sax with an earthier tone. Tyner gets a solo that sounds more conventionally structural than anything else in the 80 minute long set, but which is almost as equally searching within the limits of chromatic tonality as some of Trane’s Pentecostal honks. Throughout, Jones continues to drop explosions. I once saw the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, in 1993; at the age of 66, he was easily the most muscular and dramatic player I saw that weekend, and you can hear his work throughout this set.
“Impressions” is a track that Trane never released on a studio album; the only two studio recordings extant weren’t released until 2018—but the many live performances he did often featured the track, including its appearance on the 1963 half-live album that is its namesake. Here the track has all its hallmark features—the use of the “So What” chords, especially the uptempo live version that Miles preferred and that features on the Live in Copenhagen recording. Trane takes a shorter solo here and lets Dolphy and Tyner explore the sounds before stepping back up to close out the tune. It feels more formal and less wild than the version from Impressions, recorded just four months later, but the seeds of the approach were clearly already planted.
Trane finished the set with “Greensleeves” and “Africa,” both of which featured on his Africa/Brass album, which was still about six weeks from release at the time of these sessions. “Greensleeves” feels a lot like the “My Favorite Things” arrangement, anchored in a modal two-chord pivot that Tyner keeps going throughout the arrangement, but made wild and new by Trane’s explorations. Dolphy is mostly in the background on bass clarinet for these cuts as Trane explores the sound being created by the group. When the horns drop away, leaving a Tyner-anchored piano trio, it’s almost a shock, even as Tyner’s powerful clustered chords keep the momentum of the full band track going. “Africa” is a wilder, looser tune, less anchored in chords and more a free modal exploration. It also features the one part of the set where you can clearly hear what Reggie Workman and Art Davis were up to, in an eight minute long duet. Workman’s melodic playing explored the upper end of the instrument’s register before finding a rhythmic dance against percussive string slaps and a grounding thrum from Davis. Jones takes center stage as well, dislodging the pulse in space and time, before Dolphy and Trane return for a final hurrah—and applause from what sounds like a small audience in the club.
Trane’s group with Dolphy would last almost through the end of the year. Ultimately Dolphy moved on to play with Charles Mingus, where he could play a more central role in the sound of the group; Reggie Workman would move on as well following a European tour. Ultimately Trane found a mixed reception for his experiments with Dolphy, with some critics calling the sound “anti-jazz.” He would regroup in the following year and take his sound in another very different direction. Before we check in on the outcomes of those explorations, though, we’ll listen a little more closely to what some of his sidemen were bringing to the table.
John Coltrane’s stay on Atlantic Records, which started with a bang with Giant Steps, was ultimately brief. Signed in 1959, he recorded Steps, an excellent follow-up (Coltrane Jazz), and then a blockbuster (My Favorite Things) in the span of about 15 months… while also touring with Miles’s quintet (the tour which yielded the Copenhagen performance we’ve looked at recently). My Favorite Things was a hit, yielding the enduringly popular modal version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track, which recasts Julie Andrews’ “whiskers on kittens” into a modal exercise in musical ecstasy that calls to mind nothing so much as qawwali chants (about which, more later).
Several things happened as a result of Trane’s rising popularity. First, even before the release of Things in March 1961, Trane’s previous label Prestige Records realized they had hours of recordings by Trane in the can. They began packaging those sessions for re-release, and issued a series of records under Trane’s name but without his approval. (The series began with Lush Life, released shortly before Things in February or early March 1961.) The second thing was that Trane came to the attention of a young Creed Taylor, who had established the Impulse! Records label the year before. Impulse bought out Trane’s contract in May 1961 and he began a historic association with that label after recording one more session for Atlantic, which yielded Olé Coltrane.
Not to be outdone by Prestige, Atlantic followed their playbook and issued their own set of unauthorized Trane albums, assembling them from unused recordings from the sessions for the earlier albums. Coltrane Plays the Blues was the first to be released, in 1962. The second was Coltrane’s Sound, released in the summer of 1964. The album, recorded during the My Favorite Things sessions in October 1960, featured the earliest stable incarnation of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. Jones had come to Trane’s band earlier in 1960, following time in Sonny Rollins’ quartet. Tyner had been friends with Coltrane for years, both hailing from Philadelphia, and also joined in 1960. Davis was Tyner’s brother-in-law and had joined the band for the My Favorite Things session. The checkered history of this album aside, it plays like a coherent concept from start to finish, wrapped in an unusual painted cover by Marvin Israel, Atlantic’s art director at the time (who must have liked the technique he used for the cover; he used it again for albums by Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, and Milt Jackson).
“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” composed by Jerry Brainin, opens the album with a bold, major key statement. Trane blows the head melody over a percolating accompaniment from Tyner and Jones; Davis keeps the tune rooted, alternating between a walking bassline on the B section and a suspended D (a fourth down from the tonic) on the A section. Trane’s solo is classic “sheets of sound,” but with a greater emphasis on melodic development. Tyner’s, by contrast, leans into the chords percussively, sounding a distinctly different approach to the melody. Where Tommy Flanagan sometimes kept himself elegantly in the background on Giant Steps, Tyner’s melodic development and forthright chords announce him as an equal partner in Trane’s overall sound. Throughout it all, Jones matches Tyner’s percussive power, delivering bursts of sound on off beats and generally throwing gasoline on the collective fire. And yet, despite all the collective propulsion, the track also reads as a happy melody. It’s a neat trick that Wayne Shorter would nick years later for “Yes and No” on his album Juju.
In the liner notes to the album, jazz critic Ralph Gleason notes that Cannonball Adderley recounted a conversation between Trane and Miles in which Miles asked him “Why you play so long, man?” and Trane responded, “It took that long to get it all in.” As if to refute that earlier conception of jazz, as well as Gleason’s note that there are “those who claim that he will not play ballads,” “Central Park West” is a laconic ballad of Trane’s own composition, featuring an unhurried melody over a meditative set of chord changes. In addition to featuring Tyner’s most outstanding moment on the record in the introduction to his solo, the work also features some truly gorgeous, delicate playing from Trane on soprano sax, as well as the rest of the quartet.
The mood shifts as the quartet plays the opening notes of “Liberia” over a thunderous roll of Jones’ drums. The tune, another Trane composition, is in the same mode as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and bears other similarities — right up until the point where Trane enters the B part of the head, transforms the tonality into a different mode, and starts stretching up. The rest of his solo is played as a series of attempts to take flight and scale beyond the limits of the tune. It’s a scorcher, and it points the way forward to where Trane would be going in just a few short years.
The second side opens with the other cover on the album. Tyner opens Johnny Green and Edward Heyman’s “Body and Soul” with a modal chord progression that seems to hang Trane’s melody in the storm tossed air, a ray of light through the clouds. Here Coltrane’s ballad playing is a little more loquacious than on “Central Park West,” but still has that note of yearning. McCoy Tyner’s solo is sketched out in block chords in both hands for the first chorus, then shifts to a more melodic approach in the right hand. In the bridge he shifts to playing triplets for a few bars, responding to some of the rhythms introduced by Elvin Jones underneath. Jones’ playing deserves its own paragraph. No mere dusting with brushes here! He provides a counter-rhythm to Tyner’s strong rhythm in the block chords, complete with small explosions of sound as the tune shifts from chorus to bridge. At the end the entire rhythm section is in rhythmic unison under Trane’s unexpectedly tender closing.
The opening of “Equinox” features more of the rhythmic interplay between Tyner and Jones. The pianist’s four-square chords, doubled by Davis, are filled in by Jones’ counterpoint in an eight-bar intro. The band then shifts into eight bars of a syncopated blues rhythm on the tonic chord before Trane enters, blowing the blues. As with “Central Park West,” the opening statement is almost terse, but Trane’s first solo opens up the top end of the scale and begins to hang sheets of sound across the chords. In the fourth chorus we begin to get more of Jones’ rolling thunder, but it’s drawn back as Tyner hits gentle notes under Trane’s final bars. Tyner’s solo opens again with block chords, here less pounding and more tender. He plays with the rhythm of the blues as well as with the melodic center, introducing countermelodies centered on the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale, then launches runs of triplets that seem to take flight like birds. His final chorus is almost entirely on the tonic chord, a neat trick that refocuses the tune into the ominous storm clouds.
Trane returns to the pianoless trio form for only the second time (after “Lush Life”) on “Satellite.” The sax and bass sketch out the melody in a square quarter note rhythm, but Trane is quickly in flight over the walking — running, really — bass line and the rollicking cannon fire laid down by Jones on the drums. While the changes bring “Giant Steps” to life, the overall impression is more playful as the trio springs from melody into shimmering exploration and back. Even without Tyner, there’s no mistaking Trane’s approach here, a sort of joyous exploration of the possibilities of the sound of his new small group.
The group with Davis was short lived, and there will be a different bassist in the chair (or two!) when we listen to the next Trane album. But the sessions recorded by this formation stand as high points in Trane’s early output, even as he was already restlessly moving beyond this sound. We’ll be in a very different place next week.
In 1959, Trane signed a contract as a leader with Atlantic Records. The label, founded by Turkish-American businessman and music fan Ahmet Ertegun with record executive Herb Abrahamson, had its roots in the R&B music that Ertegun loved; among its first hits was a re-recording of a hit song from his prior label Harlem Records, the McGhee Brothers “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” But jazz was always one of Ertegun’s favored genres, and when he brought his older brother Nesuhi into the label as head of A&R in January 1955, the label expanded its focus on jazz artists, bringing in Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Charles Mingus, and, in 1959, Coltrane.
The first sessions for Giant Steps actually took place in between sessions for Kind of Blue, on April 1, 1959, in Atlantic Studios in New York City. The band included Cedar Walton on piano, Lex Humphries on drums, and Trane’s bandmate from Miles’ group Paul Chambers on bass. The session yielded recordings of three tracks, but Trane didn’t like the results and they weren’t heard until they began surfacing as alternate takes on CD reissues of the albums years later.
Trane returned to the studio two weeks after the last Kind of Blue sessions, on May 4 and 5, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums alongside Chambers. This configuration was more successful, recording “Spiral,” “Cousin Mary,” “Countdown,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Mr. P.C.”, and “Giant Steps.” To complete the album, Trane re-entered the studio on December 2, 1959 to record “Naima,” this time with Miles’ entire rhythm section—Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Chambers.
You can read a lot about the music theory behind “Giant Steps.” Trane’s innovative series of chord changes, moving through changes of thirds and fifths, and the bass line which descended in larger intervals than normal, would be the foundation for much of his early sound. Listening to the track without one’s music theory ears on, two things stand out: the tune is remarkably catchy, with the rising cadence that brings it back to the tonic suggesting a sprightly, upbeat dance; and the tempo is fearsome, particularly as Coltrane’s solo takes flight. Alternate recordings for the session reveal that Trane worked out the melodic patterns that he would play over the chords in advance; by contrast, Tommy Flanagan’s solo in the master take sounds unrehearsed, with hesitant right hand runs over each of the chords separated by gaps at each chord change. At least Flanagan attempted a solo: it is speculated that one of the reasons Trane didn’t use the sessions with Walton and Humphries was that Walton refused to solo on “Giant Steps,” despite having been given the chords in advance.
“Cousin Mary,” by contrast, plays like a more straight ahead modal blues, largely staying in the same tonality throughout, and accompanied by a killer walking bass line by Chambers and brisk snare and bass drum work by Taylor. Flanagan provides elegant stabs at the chords under the horn section and takes a solo that digs into the minor second transition in the last measures of the tune. Chambers’ solo starts as a straightforward “walk” of the blues but soon broadens as he leans into the blue note. Listen for the way the rhythm section leaves space at the end of each phrase in the final chorus, as though they are breathing with Trane.
Taylor’s drums open “Countdown” with a fierce solo; he steps back to cymbals and snare as Trane enters, seemingly playing a headlong free stream of notes outside of a melodic structure. When Flanagan and Chambers enter, it becomes apparent that the whole thing is an improvisation off a set of chords that are strongly influenced by the “Giant Steps” chords. Finally Trane blows the melody, and the song is out in less than two minutes and 30 seconds. It’s a mind blower.
By contrast, “Spiral” is more measured, but no less innovative. Trane’s melody is built around a descending chromatic scale, with ornamentation at each step that implies the spiral of the title. The chords descend as well, but the bass stays on a suspended fourth below the tonic. Trane’s “sheets of sound” solo stays pretty close to the chords in the first go round, but by the third chorus he’s regularly ascending up to a minor third above the tonic, then back down. Flanagan’s solo is surer here, leaning into the minor mode. The pianist steps back to just sketching out the chords as Chambers plays a counter-melody around the changes.
“Syeeda’s Song Flute,” opening Side 2, is the longest composition on the album and the most unusual. The tune (named after Coltrane’s adopted daughter) is deceptively simple, beginning with the rhythm section playing only on the second (later second and fourth) beat of each measure, and Trane playing a melody primarily consisting of even 8th notes. As the tune comes into the last four measures it changes key, moving from G down to E, before returning to the tonic. Tommy Flanagan’s solo moves nimbly around the changes, sounding at home in this setting; it’s the best work he does on the record. Paul Chambers gets a lengthy solo here as well, elaborating the gnomic wisdom in those chord changes, and bringing not only a more elaborate meter but also strategically timed moments of breath throughout the solo. When Trane returns, he plays the changes as a single note, on the downbeat of each measure, before leaning into the chorus.
“Naima” is named after and dedicated to Coltrane’s first wife. It’s a ballad, played slowly and sensitively (no sheets of sound here) above an E♭pedal tone that moves to a B♭ in the middle bars. The performance here, the only one from that December 2 session with Miles’ band, is one of those moments in Trane’s discography where you can hear him subtracting elements from the song to get to the core of what he had to say. It feels centered and quiet from beginning to end, including in Wynton Kelly’s piano solo after the first chorus.
“Mr. P.C.” wraps the album as a fast blues. Named after Chambers, it’s a straight ahead tune that hides tricky changes and fast exchanges in its solos. It also bears a strong familial resemblance in its first four bars to Robert MacGimsey’s 1931 song “Shadrack,” especially as performed by Sonny Rollins on his 1951 Sonny Rollins Quartet album. But Trane’s tune takes those four bars, transposes them and lands the tune someplace entirely different; his solo ends up exploring more of the outer reaches of the cosmos than the inside of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Flanagan’s piano takes over the exploration, elegantly exploring the edges of the chords and slipping in a passing Bach reference at one point. Trane returns and trades fours with Taylor for an entire chorus. Throughout, Chambers provides a consistently elevated, but even, pulse; he does not take a solo on the tune named for him.
Trane’s first Atlantic album, and the first solo recording of his post-Miles career, hints at some of the wide open vistas ahead of him. With one foot in the modal statements of Miles’ band at the time and the other foot embarking on a long search for unique expression, Giant Steps promises many moments of exploration ahead. We’ll dig into another moment in those early explorations next time.