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String Theory with Jimmy Brown: A Modern-Sounding Soloing Approach for John Coltrane's “Giant Steps”

Last month, I presented an original 16-bar solo played over the chord changes to tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s jazz standard “Giant Steps.”

With it, I demonstrated some melodic devices Coltrane employed to outline the tune’s quickly changing chords. These include the application of four-note “cells,” or tetrachords, and the tried-and-true use of arpeggios, scales and chromatic passing tones to target chord tones and “connect the dots.”

This month, I offer a second 16-bar chorus of single-note soloing that introduces another cool melodic device, arpeggio substitution, or superimposition, which can be used to modify the sound of the underlying chord qualities and make them sound more “modern” and “fusion-y.”

The solo picks up where I left off in the previous chorus, on the high D# note, which is the third of Bmaj7 (see FIGURE 1, bar 1). From here, I proceed to substitute, over the two dominant-seven-type chords that follow in bars 1 and 2, D9 and Bb13, differently rooted but harmonically related seventh-chord arpeggios that make these two chords suddenly sound like sus4 chords. I do a similar thing in bars 5 and 6 over Bb13 and F#9, in this case using simpler major and minor triad arpeggios based on different roots, with the substituted arpeggios indicated in brackets for convenient recognition.

These harmonic alterations are also reflected in the chord frames above FIGURE 1, with the abovementioned mutations indicated in parentheses. If you substitute these modified chords for their foundational counterparts, using the sample accompaniment pattern I offered in the December 2014 column, you’ll immediately hear how they update the character of the progression and make it sound more like something written from the mid Seventies onward by guitarists such as Alan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Scott Henderson, and bands like Weather Report and Steps Ahead.

As you analyze the arpeggio substitutions in FIGURE 1, notice how some simply take the previous fretboard shape and move it up (or down) one or two frets, as in bars 2, 5, 6, 7 and 12 and the climactic climb up the neck in bars 13–16. These parallel shifts create musical drama and interesting melodic contours that sound angular, yet smooth. My favorite substitutions here are the F triad over Ebmaj7 in bar 15, which creates a poignant Lydian flavor, and the tension-filled E and C major triads in bars 14 and 16, respectively, which in each case are a tritone (three whole steps) away from the root note of the underlying altered-dominant chord (Bb7#5 and F#7#9). Notice also how moving from Cm to E in bar 14 and from E to C in bar 16 creates interval expansion and contrary motion between two of the three voices that comprise each triad.

Also noteworthy here are the use of scales/modes and chromatic passing tones in certain bars, which, with their clustered step-wise motion, provide a welcome contrast to all the melodic skips in the arpeggios.