It's the 60th Anniversary of John Coltrane's monstrously influential album "Giant Steps" and my friend Steve Kaldestad just posted that he gets really bugged about comments concerning Tommy Flanagan's piano solo on that particular tune. Tommy was a great pianist, but that solo is short and simple compared to much of his other soloing on record because the music just wasn't familiar, and we've all been there. So here's a story.
When I went to the Banff Centre for The Arts Jazz Workshop back in 1991, the brilliant but not super well known alto sax player Bunky Green was there teaching. Someone (a bassist I believe) asked Bunky about whether we should try and learn hundreds of jazz standards, so that if we're ever on a gig and we don't know a tune, we won't look bad. Bunky answered that we should learn hundreds of standards if we like playing hundreds of standards, but that ultimately if someone was wanting or willing to make you look bad, they'd find a way. And then he told us a story of being on tour and staying at the same hotel as Miles Davis's sextet. Bunky ran into Cannonball Adderley (alto player on Kind of Blue) and he asked him "hey have you heard that saxophone player down the hall? Whoever it is keeps playing these patterns really slowly, over and over (and Bunky proceeded to slowly sing some of the patterns like C D E G, E F# G# B, etc)." He said that Cannonball said something like "Oh man, that's just Trane, he's been working on that stuff for a year."
Bunky then told us that while Trane had been working on the patterns that became Giant Steps for a year, the guys who recorded it with him did not get any time with it at tempo before they were at the session. He mentioned just how good Tommy Flanagan was and how unfair it was for Trane to do that. And to be clear, he wasn't saying that Trane was out to get Tommy - clearly he wouldn't have hired him if he didn't think he was brilliant. Bunky's point was that if a musician can make another musician look bad simply by not considering how hard the music is, someone who wants to make you look bad because you don't know every standard can probably do it. There's always going to be a way to do that if that's the person's motivation (and one more time: that was not Trane's motivation). Bunky is a very religious person, and he felt strongly that music should always be about lifting each other up, and never be about "cutting" someone down, at least not without it being a mutually respectful competition.
I think of this story every time I hear Giant Steps.
Oh yeah, and for the record, Tommy Flanagan was a great pianist, and the short tasty solo he plays is exactly the kind of solo a great musician would play when faced with really challenging music. It's not the solo that he or serious Flanagan fans would put in their top 10, but the man could play. But let's be honest, if he'd had a year with it, he'd would've ripped it up!