A shining beacon of instrumental virtuosity
The Philadelphia-based saxophonist had been with Atlantic for just over two years and, in that short time, had made some momentous recordings as well as taken giant strides forward in his own musical and personal development. But it was time for a change and, feeling that his future lay elsewhere, Coltrane was tempted away to the newly founded Impulse! imprint, the jazz division of the moneyed major label ABC-Paramount. Just two days earlier, he had recorded his debut album for his new label, Africa/Brass, but, before that could be released, he had to honour his contractual obligations to Atlantic and provide them with a farewell record.
When Coltrane arrived at Atlantic Records in March 1959, the jazz world was holding its breath, waiting with barely-contained excitement for the first fruit of a musical marriage that, on paper, seemed to promise much for both parties. The famous New York label, which had built its early success on rhythm’n’blues hits by Ruth Brown and Ray Charles, had been earning renown in the late 50s for its increasingly impressive jazz catalogue, which included groundbreaking recordings by Charles Mingus and The Modern Jazz Quartet. And the acquisition of Coltrane – who joined Atlantic the same year as the Texas alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who would set the free jazz movement in motion – was an exciting one for the label founded by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947. Coltrane already had one major album as a leader under his belt, 1958’s Blue Train, released on the iconic Blue Note label, and had gained much recognition for his catalytic role in the Miles Davis Quintet, which was expanding the frontiers of modern jazz. Given these two things, expectations were high for his Atlantic debut album, Giant Steps, which hit the record stores in January 1960 and was immediately received as one of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums yet.
A deep dive into modal jazz
Coltrane’s first album of all-original material, Giant Steps proved to be a shining beacon of instrumental virtuosity in jazz history: a jaw-dropping record whose totemic title track in particular redefined contemporary jazz with its combination of ravishing beauty and mind-boggling complexity.