A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
The appropriately-titled “Giant Steps” is one of those mountains that just about every jazz musician needs to climb at some point in their journey. Ever since John Coltrane included the tune on his 1960 album of the same name, jazz musicians everywhere have been intrigued, excited, frustrated, motivated, scared, and baffled by it.

But poor Tommy Flanagan! As legend has it, Coltrane went over to Flanagan’s house a week or so before the recording session, explaining that he had composed a new tune that had a chord progression that was very different from what most musicians were used to improvising on, and that he wanted to give Flanagan a chance to practice it before the recording session. As Flanagan recalled, Coltrane played the chords on the piano, but as a ballad. Flanagan didn’t see anything too challenging about soloing on the tune at that slow tempo, so he told Coltrane that he could handle it. He was apparently very surprised when Coltrane counted off such a fast tempo at the actual recording session!

If you listen to the Coltrane recording, which I’ve linked to below, you’ll hear Flanagan struggle through his solo. Keep in mind that Tommy Flanagan was an extremely accomplished jazz pianist at the time and you’ll understand something about how “different” the modulations in “Giant Steps” were at the time. Coltrane, who had been practicing these chords for months by this time, sails through his solo as if he were playing the blues. 22 years later, in 1982, Flanagan recorded “Giant Steps” with his own trio, as if to show the world that he could, indeed, play the tune as well as anyone else!!!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

John Coltrane: Giant Steps

Tommy Flanagan: Giant Steps

Branford Marsalis: Newport Jazz Festival 1987 video

Check out Kenny Kirkland’s piano solo!

Joey Alexander: In-studio performance (video)

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
The difficulty about improvising on “Giant Steps” is that it uses “Coltrane Changes” at a very fast tempo. John Coltrane developed a way of modulating between tonal centers that are related by major 3rds that he had perhaps first encountered in the bridge to the Rodgers and Hart song “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Coltrane became fascinated by this chord sequence and began inserting it into other jazz standards that he played (it can fit into a standard 4-bar ii/V/I progression). “Giant Steps” takes this to an extreme but constantly cycling around from one unrelated key to another, with little in the way of resting points.

It’s difficult to create logical-sounding melodic lines when you’re constantly shifting keys like this, and it’s easy to “get lost” in the progression. In my teaching, I’ve found that it’s usually best to learn to play “Giant Steps” as a ballad at first. In fact, you’ll benefit from playing it at a slow tempo for a long time, as it will make the tune become “second natured” to you. Just relax and enjoy playing it in a ballad tempo, like you would for “Blue In Green” or “Body And Soul.” After you’ve done this for quite a while, gradually pick up the tempo and start swinging your melodic solos.

The first step is to simply be able to stay with the musical form and play an improvised line through the chord changes. The step after that is to become “free” within this form.

Watch the video I’ve made below, for some pointers and inspiration. You can do it, if you put in the time and effort!!!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
How To Improvise Fluently On “Giant Steps”

Giant Steps. Central Park West and Modulatory Cycles
An explanation of the tune’s harmony and key structure

The Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing
This excellent book by David Berkman contains a section with “100 Steps To Giant Steps”

A transcription of Clare Fischer's piano solo on his recording of "Giant Steps"

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Jazz Piano Video Course
This extensive, well-sequenced video course will get you playing jazz standards with a sense of flow and fluency.

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