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How to Play Coltrane Changes

If you’ve ever listened to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” you may wonder how he did it…or even further still, why he chose the chords that he did and how they somehow work together. Rumor has it that when Coltrane presented “Giant Steps” to his band, his pianist struggled to keep up and solo, because the chords were not all in one key.


Well today we’re going to check out jazz matrix cycles, also known as Coltrane changes. We’re going to look at how you can play them and how you can improvise over them. These matrix cycles use harmony that moves either up or down in major thirds.


Originally, these chord changes were used in jazz standards like “Have You Met Miss Jones."

Have You Met Miss Jones Jazz standard progression

John Coltrane later popularized these changes through tunes like “Giant Steps” and “Countdown.” The matrix cycle that he used in “Countdown” is particularly useful when applying the matrix cycle to a jazz ii-V progression.

John Coltrane Giant Steps and Countdown Jazz songs for matrix progressions

To analyze some ways we can approach these matrix cycle chord changes, we’re going to check out some content from Andrew Gould’s PDF package on jazzlessonvideos.com, entitled 27 Exercises on Matrix Cycles.


Contents


How “Have You Met Miss Jones” works as a matrix cycle

The tune “Have You Met Miss Jones” was written in 1937, and the bridge moves into a few different key centers that are all related to one another by a major third.

Have You Met Miss Jones jazz standard bridge matrix cycle

We start on a concert Bb, then we move up to F#, D, and back to F# again. Coltrane used a very similar movement when he wrote his matrix cycles—like we said, they are all related by major thirds.


That said, we can assume that Coltrane likely took inspiration from this tune as he pushed forward into his own compositions.


Taking apart “Giant Steps”

“Giant Steps” is such an iconic tune for Coltrane, we’ve actually written an entire blog about it.


So let’s check out how this tune works. To start off—you guessed it—these key centers are all related by a major third.