Giant Steps, freedom won over / by constraint


  • Philippe Michel University Paris 8



John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Composition, Saxophone solo, Alexander Tcherepnin, Joseph Schillinger, cross-cultural


If we listen to all of the choruses available today amongst those recorded by John Coltrane in 1959 for the different takes of ‘Giant Steps’, we are left with the same feeling of whirling, caused by the extreme motivic repetition. Among the commentators of this piece, many have underlined the reoccurrence in the saxophone choruses, of a certain number of melodic figures (amongst which the emblematic ‘1-2-3-5’ motive, a defective pentatonic figure which pre-announced the polymodal system to be developed in the historic Coltrane quartet). This suggests, at least from the part of the saxophonist, a radical approach (restrictive and strangely constraining) to the principle of formulaic improvisation initiated by Charlie Parker. The limitation of melodic material, which Coltrane is confronted with throughout his improvisations on ‘Giant Steps’, is reinforced in the very particular arrangement of the formulaic material (a melodic matrix), which he systematically uses throughout the solos of a single session (even more so, to a certain extent, from one session to another): a paradigmatic and reductionnist analysis of the choruses, indeed shows Coltrane’s recourse to combinatorial principles, allowing him to open up the field of repetitive temporal extension, thus guaranteeing this sensation of whirling which it was manifestly aimed at. Obviously, one cannot help but establish a parallel between this reductionnist/combinatorial principle and the rigorous (if not serial) principles (similar to Alexander Tcherepnin’s and Joseph Schillinger’s) which underlines the composition from the melodic/harmonic theme. Such a cross-cultural adaptation of compositional techniques to improvisationnal context shows us on Coltrane’s part, a desire to find a new ‘way’, an original sound in close relation to the originality of the melodic-harmonic theme (from which the saxophonist seems to adopt as his own, the principle of theme-solo unity, so dear to Thelonious Monk, whose partner he had been). Finally, far from confining the analysis to observation of structural principles separated from all potential esthetic function (that is, from any musical realization), we conclude by attempting to discern what John Coltrane may have wished to feel (or make others feel) by means of what could seem to be simply a challenge, unnecessarily constricting. Besides the idea of an opening onto a circular sound world made accessible by combinatorics (close to the concept of ‘open work’), we even envisage that of freedom won over / by constraint.

Author Biography

  • Philippe Michel, University Paris 8

    Philippe Michel, pianist, composer, musicologist. PhD (Paris 8 University - 1997) on ‘Problems of formal perception in Western music of the 20th century’. His experience as a pedagogue ranges from ‘Professor of Artistic Teaching’ (jazz / piano) in Conservatory to a more academic form, mainly in the domain of musical analysis. He has written articles on music of the 20th century and on jazz in particular, the common subject of which concerns the understanding of creation processes and a reflection on the work (work of art) concept. He is member of the research group: ‘Esthetic, musicology and musical creation’ (E.A. 1572, Paris 8 – ‘Vincennes à St-Denis’ University). Since 1999, he is ‘Maître de Conférences’ in the Music Department of Paris 8 University, and ‘Coordinator’ of the ‘Jazz & improvised music’ section (see


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How to Cite

Michel, P. (2010). Giant Steps, freedom won over / by constraint. Jazz Research Journal, 3(1), 31-62.