clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The most feared song in jazz, explained

John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is the pinnacle of jazz improvisation.

John Coltrane, one of jazz’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. The chord progression that makes up the entirety of the song came to be called the “Coltrane changes”; it’s known across the musical world as one of the most challenging chord progressions to improvise over.

It’s tough for two reasons: The chord progressions are played fast, and they’re in three keys. “Giant Steps” is so challenging that Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the original recording, could barely get through his solo before Coltrane took over.

While this song is one of the most complicated in jazz, it’s also the perfect tool to learn a few basic music theory principles that drive Western harmony.

Jazz musician Braxton Cook and music YouTuber Adam Neely gave me a crash course in Western music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I bring you along for the ride in the video above. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

By the way, later in Flanagan’s career, he made up for his shaky performance by recording a near-flawless improvisation: