John Coltrane ‘Giant Steps: 60th Anniversary Edition’ 2LP/2CD (Atlantic/Rhino) 5/5

The renowned jazz academic Tony Whyton has said that recordings can “provide us with a window into the time of their creation and, by listening to studio chatter and outtakes and so on, we can understand how recordings were put together and listen in on the creative process as it happened”. Whyton also makes the point that “By seeming to turn the music into an object – jazz recordings crystalize standards and turn fleeting moments into benchmark statements for subsequent generations to absorb, imitate, and measure themselves against”.

This is somewhat ironic when we so often think of jazz as being an improvised music whose essence cannot be captured or documented other than “in the moment”. However, this latest reissue seems to cover both bases with eight additional outtakes on the 2-CD version and a total 28 outtakes on the ‘Super Deluxe Edition’.

I acquired my copy in 1976 when Atlantic Records reissued the album as part of its ‘That’s Jazz’ series and it made an immediate impression upon me. Originally released, of course in 1960, the album is as important to me (and countless others) as Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ released in 1959 and also featuring Coltrane. Over the ensuing years, the album has been reissued countless times, bearing testimony to Whyton’s assertion of a “benchmark” statement.

It marks something in a turning point for Coltrane and arguably for the sound of jazz to come. What is interesting is the difference in approach that these two albums take. The Davis recording is introspective and measured. The Coltrane is an intense tour-de-force. Both albums were, in their different ways, jazz milestones and both are equally accessible albums. Tracks from both have become jazz ‘standards’ and countless saxophonists have taken up the challenge of the title track which, along with ‘Mr PC’ and ‘Countdown’, still speak something of the language of bebop, thanks largely to having pianist Tommy Flanagan in the accompanying trio together with Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly making cameo appearances with Art Taylor playing the drums on the majority of the pieces. Of course, Chambers, Cobb and Kelly also made telling contributions to ‘Kind of Blue’. Coltrane certainly wasn’t averse to change, and he seemed to continually push himself in new directions, some of which may not have always been so listener-friendly.

This celebratory release is available as a download, on CD and on vinyl. Alongside the familiar material we get an additional 40 minutes of outtakes which offer a fascinating insight into the artistic process and “a window into the time of their creation”. For instance, we are accustomed to the headlong tempo of the title track but it’s interesting to hear a somewhat ‘Westcoast Cool-School’ treatment too.

Accompanying notes come from Ashley Khan, who in addition to being an acknowledged Coltrane authority, was also responsible for writing ‘Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece’. There is clearly no doubting his writing credentials. The notes also include testimonials from several generations of saxophonists who have since emerged from Coltrane’s shadow.

The recorded sound is fabulous and signals the emergence of the now famed Coltrane ‘sound’. The programming of the tracks is perfect, and the 2-CD set allows space for a wealth of alternative takes which shed new light on a legend of post-bop jazz. It’s sobering to think that ‘Trane would be with us for a mere seven years more, but what years they were! If you are familiar with the original album, it’s good to have the additional material available. If you are new to Coltrane, I’m hoping that you will enjoy the music as much as I have over the years.

Alan Musson