Jazz is possibly the most complex musical form devised by humans. The syncopation, the improvisation, the sudden, breathtaking changes of direction and the fact that it's not learned so much as felt makes scholarship of the genre daunting. John Coltrane was one of the most revolutionary jazz saxophonists in history. He died much too young, at age 40, from a liver ailment. But he is remembered for his great support of younger musicians, his deep religious faith and his unusually peaceful demeanor. Chris Raschka's delightful book for young people, John Coltrane's Giant Steps, illustrates "Trane's" classic recording "Giant Steps" using a pastel box, a snowflake, some raindrops and a cool kitten. The book reminds the reader of a fun art class exercise the kind where you have to paint a picture to the music being spun on the class record player. Even the cover is witty, with the kitten painted on a clear sleeve over the other visual elements. Inside, Raschka, who calls his book a "remix," has the kitten, the raindrops and the box present themselves as performers. The raindrops begin the tempo, then they're joined by the box for the "sound foundation," then the snowflake brings in the harmony with the kitten bringing on the melody. Their initial union results in a muddle such is the difficulty of visually demonstrating Trane's piece with snowflake, box, raindrops and kitten in an exhausted tuneless heap on the floor. Gently and playfully, Raschka's offstage conductor tells them what went wrong ("Snowflake. I like what you're doing . . . kitten . . . On page 18, you look a little blurry to me.") and exhorts them to be as relaxed, as "dense but transparent," as "Dynamic and strong and vivid," as the great musician himself. They all take it from the top. Finally, they combine to illustrate, as vividly as they can, the sheets of sound and color that flowed from Trane's saxophone.
This is a charming, elegant book for young people just being introduced to the world of jazz.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.