Monday, May 14, 2012

Countdown to Giant Steps

I have decided to embark on another 30 day blogging challenge. When I wrote 30 tunes in 30 days earlier this year, I not only enjoyed the process, but I felt as if I grew musically and had really accomplished something worthwhile by the end. Devoting 30 days to a specific topic seems like just the right amount of time to make some headway.

After a period of defining myself more as a composer/arranger than a pianist, I have found myself craving more time behind the ivories, returning to my roots. For the next 30 days, I will take you along for the ride as I head back into the proverbial woodshed.

In the early 1960s, John Coltrane devised a chord progression which he superimposed over the common harmonies of several popular songs. Musicians refer to this progression as “Coltrane Changes” or the “Coltrane matrix” or “Giant Steps changes”. 

I can play Giant Steps fairly well; at least to the point where as a sideman I wouldn’t embarrass myself on a gig. There was a time when I practiced Giant Steps diligently. What I haven’t done is really learn the other tunes Coltrane recorded during this period, which also incorporate his superimposed harmonic matrix. These include:
  • Countdown (based on Miles Davis’ “Tune-Up”)
  • 26-2 (based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”)
  • But Not For Me (by George Gershwin)
  • Exotica (Coltrane’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me”)
  • Fifth House (based on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love”)
  • Satellite (based on “How High The Moon”)
  • The Night Has A Thousand Eyes (by Brainin/Bernier)
  • Central Park West
  • Body and Soul (by Green / Heyman)

Over the next 30 days I plan to memorize, practice and become comfortable playing the above listed tunes. I am committing myself to practice these pieces in a focused manner for no less than one hour per day.

The question is… how will I blog about this experience? I have been considering what could be included in a 30 day practice-oriented blog. Here are my ideas:
  • my practice routines and methods, as they evolve
  • self-evaluations of my daily practice sessions, followed by planning & modifications to the regimen for the next day’s session.
  • written exercises
  • listening logs and suggestions
  • lead sheets
  • transcriptions
  • recordings of me playing specific exercises
  • YouTube uploads of Coltrane recordings
  • lists of published resources I am using
  • harmonic analysis of selected songs
  • an explanation of Coltrane changes
  • videos or audio recordings of me performing the pieces at the conclusion.
Let me know if you have further thoughts as to what I might consider including in the blog posts. I am certainly open to suggestions. Some of the posts might be brief, serving primarily to “check in”. Others may be quite involved.

In addition to expanding my repertoire and getting myself back into shape at the keyboard, I hope to provide some insight into what jazz musicians do behind the scenes, and how one can practice effectively and efficiently. Maybe it will be helpful to some young, aspiring musicians.

All of the fun starts here tomorrow. Now I’m off to the library to gather up some CDs, books and get planning.


  1. I'd love to read you talk about trends you see developing as you practice. Are you practicing the same things on different tunes or is does each tune present its own challenges and routines?

    I'm also curious on how long it takes you to "know" the tune. Does that change over the month? Does it take you 2 hours to learn a tune on day 1, but 30 minutes on Day 30? Or vice versa....

    1. Will do, Brandt. Initially, the major hurdle with this group of tunes will be getting myself comfortable weaving through Coltrane's matrix progression. Because this progression is common to all of the tunes, the process should get easier... I hope. :)

  2. I am also trying to embark on a little more time "behind the doghouse." (Wait, is that RIGHT??) Anyhow, thanks for the idea. Thanks for writing about your journey, you are an inspiration.
    - Emily


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