Coltrane Variations

By Sean Carroll | September 13, 2006 12:31 pm

Bad PlusThe Bad Plus have a blog! How cool is that? (Via Marginal Revolution.) The BP are a jazz trio consisting of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, known for an energetic and imaginative style that ranges from free jazz to playful pop. Their version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit became quite a hit as these things go, and rightfully so. The blog is called Do The Math, so perhaps they are trying to compete in the nerd-off. It’s fantastic that a working jazz combo (or musicians more generally) have their own blog; anyone know of any other examples?

I haven’t had a chance to explore the blog very closely, but I noticed that they link to a recent NYT article by Ben Ratliff on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s upcoming Coltrane series, in honor of what would have been his 80th birthday. One of the pieces being performed is Giant Steps, an especially interesting tune. Coltrane knew his music theory backwards and forwards, and he put a tremendous amount of thought into composing Giant Steps; rumor has it that it was meant as an exercise for students, but has since grown into a popular standard, in much the same way as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Apparently Trane himself decided that it was too mechanical, and didn’t play it very much after the record had appeared.) The solo is based on an extremely rapid series of a particular type of chord changes, now known as Coltrane changes. In the tune, Coltrane plays four notes in each chord (the root, second, third, and fifth) as a series of eighth notes, changing chords every two beats. For those of you keeping score at home, that means each note is played precisely once before moving on the the next chord, not leaving much time for ornamentation. You can buy a whole book of transcriptions of Trane’s different takes of the chorus.

I know you want me to link to an audio file of Giant Steps, don’t you? But I have something even better. Via Wikipedia, here is an animation of Giant Steps by Michal Levy. It’s extremely well done, and the visual representation tracks the music faithfully while adding its own imaginative dimension.

Giant Steps animation

For your obligatory science content, MR also points to a very clever animation of different dimensions, all the way up to ten! (Okay, the mixing of quantum mechanics and the higher dimensions is a little bizzare; but the pictures are nice.) Those MR guys are pretty good linkers, for libertarians.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Music
  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog/ Allyson

    …anyone know of any other examples?

    There’s a ton on myspace, which was its original purpose before it became one stop shopping for teen girl angst and the creepy old men who love them.

    I’ve nothing on jazz, but since you’re in LA, check Grant Langston, Four Star Mary, or Dalton Grant. All play locally, all have blogs or journals.

    Warning: The first two links play music, in case anyone clicks at work would be saddened to be suddenly accosted by guitar.

  • tom fish

    I heard that cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit in a bar the other night, very cool!

  • Dark Vader

    Sean, is this heaven or what!? Jazz and cosmos, man I’m with you!

    Cool animation! If you like TBP maybe I should hint on the Swedish’s original (yea yea, we all know that Jazz originated in Finland, but what the heck ;) ). Check out E.S.T (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), playing jazz on MTV and rock venues with inspiration from punk and heavy metal.

    Weird?? If you check out the E.S.T homepage you will see a Flash-intro showing weak lensing! (move the cursor slow over the face’s). And the explanation is probably that Esbjörn Svensson is very interested in astronomy. Quantum coincidence… :)

  • http://www.geocities.jp/imyfujita/goldberg/indexe.html Iori Fujita

    Hello! Sean
    You wrote;
    “Coltrane knew his music theory backwards and forwards, and he put a tremendous amount of thought into composing Giant Steps; rumor has it that it was meant as an exercise for students, but has since grown into a popular standard, in much the same way as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Apparently Trane himself decided that it was too mechanical, and didn’t play it very much after the record appeared.)”

    I have a comment;
    Bach’s Goldberg Variations were not meant as an exercise for students. This work of Bach was an intellectual and psychological product in the world of music. It is difficult to play it, but it was never too mechanical.
    I called it “Music of Intellect”. Visit my site;
    http://www.geocities.jp/imyfujita/goldberg/indexe.html
    And of course it is beautiful.
    http://www.geocities.jp/imyfujita/goldberg/ggpage00.html

  • Dark Vader

    #4: Huum, Iori Fujita correct me if I’m wrong, but with your ‘twist’ one could get the Impressions that John Coltrane wrote mechanical music for students…? So What you might say!? Well, since Coltrane is one of My Favorite Things I must oppose! Coltrane is the most expressive and divine improviser the world has ever seen. If Coltrane thought that Giant Steps was too mechanical, the reason was most probably his sensibility, and nothing else. If you let a real Robot play the solo – it’s Giant Steps from the original! (You could call it original ‘Variations’) ;-)

    To get into a higher intellectual and psychological mood – just listen to Naima.

    I fully agree with the comment: “Trane was the soul of jazz. This is more than music. This is spiritual. This will take your heart and mind to another level of understanding passion. The closes example of this is the act of making love.”

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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