by Dennis Winge

The classic album Giant Steps by John Coltrane
The classic album Giant Steps by John Coltrane was recorded in 1959 and released in 1960

Coltrane changes are fun to play on.  If you're intimidated by Giant Steps, it could simply be the tempo of the tune.  Just because Trane's version is fast doesn't mean you can't enjoy using the changes at slower tempos, in smaller increments, and on generally easier tunes.

What are Coltrane's 'Giant Steps'

There are plenty of internet resources on what Coltrane changes are so we will only provide a short overview here. (Listen to the original track on youtube)

The changes Bmaj7 - D7 - Gmaj7 - Bb7 - Ebmaj7 is the opening of Giant Steps.  It spans 3 keys, B, G, and Eb.  Those keys are a major third apart and they sit far away from each other on the Circle of Fifths, hence the title "Giant Steps." 

In re-harmonizing jazz standards, you can take any II - V - I progression and put these changes into it by going up a half-step from the II chord to begin the cycle.

Standard Changes - key of C

II
V I
Dm7 G7 Cmaj7

Standard II - V - I Re-harmonized with Coltrane Changes

II
(key C)
(V
(key Ab)
I) (V
(key E)
I) (V
(key C)
I)
Dm7 Eb7 Abmaj7 B7 Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7

In the above example we have 3 keys: Ab, E, and C and they are a major third apart, which is the same relationship as in Giant Steps. Over each key change is the V chord to the I chord in that particular key, as indicated.

If you are not familiar with this reharm, it would be good to write them out in 12 keys, so I'll give you one more example:

Standard Changes - key of F

II
(key F)
V I
Gm7 C7 Fmaj7

Standard II - V - I Re-harmonized with Coltrane Changes

II
(key F)
(V
(key Db)
I) (V
(key A)
I) (V
(key F)
I)
Gm7 Ab7 Dbmaj7 E7 Amaj7 C7 Fmaj7

Why Christmas Carols?

(Please note, I use a harmonic analysis system based on John Mehegan's classic book "Tonal and Rhythmic Principles" which doesn't lower case the Roman Numerals for minors, and uses the following symbols: ∆ = major, x = dominant, - = minor, Ø = half-diminished or m7b5, and o = diminished,.)

So if the re-harmonization technique can be used on any jazz standard, why an article specifically about Christmas Carols?  Notice in the above examples that it takes 3 bars of reharm before the I chord comes in bar 4.  This is fine if the I chord in the standard changes stays the same in bars 3 and 4.  It'll also be fine if the chord in bar 4 is diatonic to the key (like Am in the key of C, as in a II - V - I - VI progression).  But if bar 4 takes you somewhere else, you may have to be bit creative with how use the reharm.  For example, suppose you have:

II
(key C)
V I VII IIIx
Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 Bm7b7 E7
VI IIx II V I
Am7 D7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7

In order to use Coltrane changes in the first 4 bars you might have to go:

II
(key C)
(V
(key Ab)
I) (V
(key E)
I) (V
(key C)
I) VII IIIx
Dm7 Eb7 Abmaj7 B7 Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7 Bm7b5 E7
VI IIx II V I
Am7 D7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7

So notice that when you "resolve" to C, the underlying harmony as written in the original version of the tune is not really on C anymore, and you're, in a sense, shoving a round peg in a square hole.  (And, as experienced guitarist know, if you're trying to pull off this reharm on the fly with a bass player who is not expecting them, it can sound quite unusual indeed, so a word to the wise:  play it confidently and play it clearly if you're going to do it spontaneously or it will just sound wrong.)

Fortunately, in a lot of Christmas carols, there are many sections where the I chord doesn't come until bar 4.  That makes them perfect for Coltrane reharmonizations. 

Examples

Christmas Song

Coltrane re-harmonization of 'The Christmas Song'

The re-harmonization would go: | Bbm7 B7 | Emaj7 G7 | Cmaj7 Eb7 | Abmaj7 |

Let it Snow

Coltrane re-harmonization of 'Let it Snow'

The re harmonization is: | Gm7 Ab7 | Dbmaj7 E7 | Amaj7 C7 | Fmaj7 |

Winter Wonderland

Coltrane re-harmonization of 'Winter Wonderland'

The re-harmonization would be: | Dm7 Eb7 | Abmaj7 B7 | Emaj7 G7 | Cmaj7 |

Contexts in which to use the Re-harmonizations

Of course you're not going to re-harmonize while someone is singing or playing the melody unless you have worked out how to alter the melody in advance!  There are examples of the melody being altered (such as in my wacky version of Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer on my Holiday Album, but generally speaking you should reserve those reharms for solo sections only.

You can really go nuts with this device if you're so inclined, because sometimes whole tunes lend themselves to re-harmonized changes such as in this version of Happy Holidays.  I look forward to hearing the results of your experiments, so don't be shy in sending them. :)


About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in upstate New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga.  If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons in Ithaca, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!

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