Released in 1960 by John Coltrane, Giant Steps has challenged many musicians when it came improvisation, as throughout the song it changes key three times using a compositional technique that Coltrane developed himself called the “Coltrane Matrix”. The concept of this technique is to shift the key centre of the piece in major thirds on the circle of fifths which spells out the chords formula for an augmented chord (as they are built up entirely of major thirds). However just playing through chords is just one of the hurdles this piece has to offer, as the tempo is set at a blistering 286bpm which many musicians struggle to keep up with both mentally and physically. Dealing with this piece requires time to get used to the shifts in key centre whilst soloing through the chords, learning different approaches to these chords can help immensely in playing through the piece.
At a glance, anybody reading the lead sheet will probably assume that the piece is in C major (C D E F G A B) seeing as there is no sharps or flats in the key signature, however, the beginning of the piece starts out with a B major 7 chord (B D# F# A#). The first chord played already contains notes that aren’t a part of the initial scale which leads us to think that maybe the composer intended to use chords from a different scale to change up the harmony. However, examining the following chords we see a D7 chord (D F# A C) which contains notes foreign to both the initial scale and the previous chord, making it a non diatonic chord change, but looking at the next chord after the D7 we see a G major 7 (G B D F#) which fits in diatonically with the previous chord which is suggesting a change in key to G major (G,A, B, C, D, E, F#) which at least gives two of the first three chords context, this also results in a perfect cadence from the V chord (D7) to the I chord (G). As for the next chord, a Bb7 (Bb D F Ab) appears which yet again strays from the newly established scale which hints at yet another key change, and judging by the next chord in the progression which is an Eb major 7 (Eb G Bb D) we see another perfect cadence, this time the key is in Eb major. Now here’s where it starts to get interesting, A minor 7 (A C E G) – which is the first minor chord to appear in the piece and believe me, that makes analysing jazz standards a lot less stressful which I’m about to explain – causes yet another change in key, but to what exactly, well the answers in the next chord which is a D7 CHORD!!! (Explanation Time) Having shown up earlier in the piece, we can automatically assume that the next chord is a G major 7 although just acting solely on assumptions can often lead to mistakes, however, going back to when the A minor 7 appeared I mentioned that having minor chords show up in jazz standard can make analysing much quicker and easier, this is because the most common chord progression in jazz is the major II – V – I which tends to start off with a minor 7 chord (although in some cases it may be a minor II – V – I which starts on a diminished 7 chord). Once you are able to identify these chord patterns throughout a jazz standard, you can utilise whichever soloing concept you like when you approach them in future as you get more and more familiar with what sounds good over it. In next pattern we come across next is another V – I in Eb major (Bb7 – Eb major 7). This next chord progression answers the problem we had the very beginning about the starting chord (B major 7) being non diatonic from the initial key (C major), because the next chord we encounter is a F#7 chord (F# A# C# E) which contains two notes from the B major 7 chord and reveals that F# is the 5th of B major giving us another II – V – I. Now that we’ve uncovered the three key signatures contained in this track, a pattern has started to emerge which reveals Coltrane’s genius compositional technique behind this monster of a piece known as THE COLTRANE MATRIX!!! This is where you take the circle of fifths and shift the key in major thirds – effectively creating an augmented chord, in this case it would be an Eb augmented chord (Eb G B) – and jump back and forth between said keys which creates a complex harmony which baffles musicians to this day.
Below is a video explaining different approaches to soloing over the chords in the easiest and most fluid way possible.
The video demonstrates a few different ways to go about soloing over the chord progression of giant steps in a simplified way. The first concept simply focuses on using broken chords (Arpeggios) that follow the chords on the chart very strictly. Having this approach allows the musician to get through the piece with minimal effort, however, relying entirely on this approach instead of integrating it into either one or all of the other approaches causes the solo to sound rehearsed and not spontaneous in the least. The second concept broadens that of the previous concept by introducing scales, as they have more notes to choose from compared to arpeggios and they need more time to get used to, although the flaw with purely using scales is that you begin to become “trapped in the box” which, as a jazz musician is very restrictive because you lose the feeling of freedom with being able to play freely through standard, this is when you should think about using the chromatic approach which I will explain later. Approach number three is pentatonic scales (Penta = Five and Tonic = tones), this is sort of the halfway point between scales and arpeggios as you have more notes than an arpeggios to work with but less than a full scale, yet again without stringing more than one approach together you fall into the same problem as the previous two approaches such as lack of spontaneity, musicality and being trapped in the proverbial “box”. Concept number 3, now here’s a more interesting approach to soloing over jazz chord progressions called “The Big Five”, in the video he demonstrates how to get from Bb7 to Eb major 7 – which he called Bb7 the “Big Five” of Eb major 7 – by using a Bb altered scale (Bb Cb Db D E F G Ab), all of the notes of the scale fit in with the Bb7 scale meaning that it’s a diatonic chord, however it doesn’t contain the target note he initially wanted to end on which was the Eb but instead contains most of the notes in the first four chords, and the notes that aren’t in the first four chords can be used as passing notes to give an “outside” sound, as he solos through the first four chords using this altered scale he arrives at the Eb major 7 which he arrives at by either using the D or the E note from the altered scale as a passing note to resolve the Bb7 chord. These are just a few of the examples given in the video which can be utilised not only when soloing over giant steps, but any jazz standard you may come across.
Ligus by Snarky Puppy synthesiser solo analysis (Cory Henry)
The solo starts of with Bass, Drums and Piano providing the backing for the solo which centres around four notes (E C A F) which spells out F major 7. The opening of the solo starts with a short, diatonic phrase followed by a few bars of space which is found a lot in jazz music as it allows the music to breathe and gives to soloist time to think about what to play next, he then follows it up with another phrase which is twice in length and acts as response to the previous phrase much like typical blues which uses call and response in solos to create something of a conversation in the music followed by more space. The next phrase he plays is a very jazz inspired swing line with some intervalic jumps added to a modal line with some interesting rhythmic slurs which almost gives of the effect of the piece of music slowing down, which is achieved through slipping in and out of triplet rhythms only to add more rhythmic complexity to this solo, meanwhile messing with the filters on his synth module to change the attack of his tone to sound almost like a jazz guitars neck pickup with most of the tone rolled off. This same rhythmic idea seems to carry on to the next phrase, this time with chromaticism added in to provide an “outside” sound to add harmonic interest to a somewhat diatonic solo. Skipping ahead a bit, we begin to see the integration of Latin style drum grooves which yet again adds more rhythmic complexity as well as Cory adding some cliche Latin motifs to demonstrate his awareness to what the people around him are playing. Further along in the solo Cory begins to integrate another keyboard as an accompaniment to help add colour to the phrases he is playing, this is where he starts to experiment with exploring ideas that are non diatonic to the key, but diatonic with the underlying chord progression played by the backing band, as the solo progresses, it begins to take on more of a free improv inspired approach where Cory – who is still playing around the chord progression – introduces complex harmonies and tight interplay with the drums to work towards building up to the peak of the solo. As the brass comes in, Cory’s synth tone drastically changes from the mellow jazz tone as he begins a call and response yet again, but this time playing in response to the brass section who tend to centre around playing diatonic lines, whereas Cory immediately starts his response off with the melodic minor scale changing into the Ionian #5 scale – which is the third mode of the harmonic minor scale – which adds a very colourful answer to the brass sections call, as things progress however, the call and response system gradually begins to break down and the two opposing sides start to meld together building up for the end of the track with an immense wall of sound.
Here is the solo in question: