Thursday, May 19, 2011
John Coltrane: Giant Steps (1960)
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
When someone in the audience at a recent Cat's Cradle show requested his unreleased Coltrane love letter "My Favorite Things," John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats politely complied then told the story, and I'm paraphrasing, of how everyone when they're somewhere between 18 and 23 discovers John Coltrane and believes in their heart of hearts that they are the first person ever to realize how amazing he is, to revel in the joy of growing into an appreciation of someone so unassumingly brilliant, so high-art, so wise and eclectic beyond what even the most artful among us can hope to achieve in our lifetimes, much less in the forty years he was afforded.
But this extended communal experience, clichéd and familiar as it is, speaks to a common truth -- that to have something this beautiful and so seemingly exotic fall into place is really an amazing thing, a wonderful part of a human and musical appreciation we all deserve to run through. And once we get there, we can start to relate to how much fucking fun and joy there is in Giant Steps.
As with so many before me, my relationship with jazz, or at least hard bop and modal jazz, began with Miles Davis -- who is considerably easier to get to know and love than Trane for a teenager used to considering everything within a rock idiom. Kind of Blue was the first purely jazz record I owned, purchased in a moment of the sort of aimless curiosity I like to think has served me well in life. And Kind of Blue isn't such a big stretch for any human being to understand, its sad textures and ample grooves as clear-cut and deceptively straightforward as the hooks on a Beach Boys LP. Above all, its emotions are direct; it's never a struggle to follow the drift of feeling in any of those six cuts.
I couldn't help noticing how much Coltrane's sax throttled me when it came into focus on "So What," and of course his name was familiar, though I never learned about him school (even though I'm from his home state and he is the greatest cultural asset we've ever had, but that's another rant for another day). Several months after Kind of Blue, I got Giant Steps. Man, I want to tell you it blew my eighteen year-old mind and changed my life forever, but I didn't really get it. Certainly not on the level that I got Kind of Blue. And I'm going to sound like an asshole but I'm pretty sure it's because I was a kid, and if Giant Steps -- if Coltrane in general -- is about anything, I can't say what it is exactly but it isn't something we know when we're eighteen. In Stephin Merritt's phrase, it's about things we're all too young to know.
It's not that Kind of Blue is from the heart and Giant Steps isn't; it's that Steps' pathway to the senses is more cerebral, less sensuous than spiritual -- but busily, brightly so. Recorded within three weeks of one another in what must be among the most productive months of recording any American musician has managed, the two records are cut from a common cloth but couldn't finally be more different. Steps is "hard bop" from its first few seconds, when furious chord changes beyond my human comprehension fly past Coltrane and band, who proceed so nonchalantly it's rather startling. To put this record on is to feel you are bursting into a gathering in process, a world of high traffic that never began and never will end. Perversely, the songs, "Giant Steps" itself in particular, approach their chaos in a casual, threateningly clean-cut manner that may come off as detached to the newcomer, diluted by none of the aural comforts and explicit shadings of an "All Blues."
Of course, Coltrane is anything but detached and that would always be the case; his stated desire to record great meadows of happiness and button-pushing emotion for his listeners still lay ahead. Even though Giant Steps post-dates the great revelation he credited for altering his musical course, its approach is worlds more impressionistic and streamlined than his second greatest recording, A Love Supreme. It's fitting that, in part presumably as a result of his grand experiments with Miles Davis, Giant Steps would prove his final session before a world-shaking immersion in modal jazz.
We can spend all day reading about bebop and Coltrane changes, and struggling with the implications of the word "modal," and those of us without the head or ears for it will quickly collapse in frustration. I can only explain in barest of terms what I love, what I find so difficult and moving about something like "Cousin Mary" -- its conflict and propulsion, its cheery street corner madness. Innovative it may be, but it's the strange itching and drama that strikes me in "Countdown," and it's the bustling urban confusion in "Spiral," an almost over-the-top evocation of sprawl and the wet paved midnight Sweet Smell of Success alleyways just as intoxicatingly captured by Television's Marquee Moon. It's the lonely shades of militaristic duty on "Syeeda's Song Flute" before it degenerates into almost unbearably heavy bass cycles just before Coltrane returns with the most beautiful and searing sequence of the album.
But I can't attest to any of this being valid for anyone else; truthfully, by now the pleasures come immediately and require no twisting. What is certain about the appeal of Giant Steps, never suggested by its peacefully impassioned cover, are its vague running commentary on a debilitating, scarcely acknowledged chaos brewing underneath it, the quiet but unmistakable prelude to Coltrane's 1960s. More directly approachable and striking is the manner in which Trane's rapid-fire solos, so crazed that pianist Tommy Flanagan occasionally seems to lose his grip, bounce against the sweetly urbane, melancholy melodies of his compositions -- a fascinating contrast easy for a new jazz fan reared on rock & roll to get behind -- as though he is proceeding with business but periodically slipping into an alien trance. Coltrane's professionalism and the careful construction of emotional rise-and-fall in his music are stunning, and it's a thrill to hear his rational side slip unwarned into gorgeous, effortless flight on every track.
I can tell you how Giant Steps fell into place for me. For someone who's always listened to jazz, this likely won't make much sense, but I never really had. It's different now, but when I was in my early twenties I needed something to signify to make me enjoy a piece of music, something more than virtuosic solos and arranged prettiness or falling-apart sheets of sound. I was researching the Hamlet chicken plant fire, an ugly incident that took place in North Carolina in September of 1991. A company called Imperial Foods with a poor safety record had an unfortunate habit of locking the emergency exit doors at its plant, based on a paranoia that their predominately black, poor workforce would rob them of some of their rotten chicken parts. On September 3rd, a hydraulic line burst near a gigantic deep fryer. 25 people were killed, most of them trapped inside the cooler or by the locked doors. In crime scene photos of the doors you can see the fingernail marks of people desperately trying to escape before the smoke killed them. Less soul-crushing but no less sad and disturbing are the photos taken a decade later, days before the remains of the plant were finally torn down, depicting an idly overrun scene of misery, its bent metallic quiet unmistakably an aftermath of horror no novelist could grasp long enough to invent. In the prior few years, the survivors who did not subsequently succumb to their injuries mostly -- too poor to leave Hamlet -- lived within sight of the plant, reminded every day.
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet sixty-five years before that. On a tape I found from a public TV station regarding the tenth anniversary of the incident, "Naima" from Giant Steps -- recorded at a different session than the other tracks, softer and more deliberate, full of ache in Coltrane's stark playing and the tolling of Paul Chambers' bass -- was laid over a grim montage of the town of Hamlet in the years after the fire, a community forever shadowed, every loss and inescapable disappointment apparent in the faces of those nearby. I was haunted but somehow failed to recognize the music. When I learned of its identity, I was taken aback and something led me to grow addicted to the immense sadness, desperation, loneliness of the song. It was written for Coltrane's wife at the time but the Hamlet video threw me for a loop with the realization that the crux of it was not any particular lovelorn or lost melancholy or dread but the sheer essence of a loss, perfectly and flawlessly expressed. It soon hit me emotionally, every time, with no photos or associations attached beyond what rise it could get from me. And within five years or so it was, roughly speaking, the greatest recording, the greatest song of any kind I knew of. I still think it is.
And then the reason to hear Giant Steps again became "Naima" and what longings it could conjure up, because there is always longing no matter how good of a place we're in. We know that as well as Coltrane did, but we can't do what he did with it. And then after that the reason becomes how good it feels to have the tenor sax blasting in your eardrum (what a terrific album for headphones this is), and then the reason is to visit that strange ornately captured dirty-town urban mystery, all business and secrets. The reason for me is never just musical sophistication. But fuck, any reason to listen to this is a good one.