“Giant Steps” on Native American Style Flute

I understand for many people that this will fall into the category of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. To them, the idea of employing the NAF in a “real jazz” setting borders on the absurd. The NAF just doesn’t have enough notes or the response needed to get the job done. Or does it?

The idea of arranging John Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps came from a recent Facebook discussion. I won’t go into all the details, but I was challenged that jazz could not be played on the NAF. I pointed to some of my recent YouTube playalongs, but these weren’t considered “real jazz”. I asked for an example of “real jazz” and Giant Steps was the reply. Oy! All righty then, game on!

I will be the first to admit this could still use a lot of work to fully develop the idea. However, I’m presenting this to show that the NAF can be applied to virtually any genre you want though some concessions must sometimes be made in the arrangement. The process will also highlight some techniques to use in general when arranging for NAF.

The first step was to get the melody and see if it fits the range of a NAF. It doesn’t. To make it fit, we have to apply some “octave folding”. This means taking a note or phrase that would be too high or low to play on the NAF and moving it down or up an octave so that it does fit. Here is a chart in the Notion app with the “as composed” melody taken from a chart for Bb instruments.

The total note range of this melody is F4 to C6. This is an octave plus a fifth. The range of a NAF is an octave plus a minor third, so we already know it isn’t going to fit no matter what key of NAF is selected, but it’s close. Recall from my article On Notes and Notation that my “notational range” for NAF is A3 to C5. To get the concert pitch down to “notational pitch”, there are various transposition strategies that could be employed. The one I chose was to start by transposing down an octave so that the range is then F3 to C5. This is shown in the middle staff above. Everything now fits except for measures 6-8 where it goes off the bottom of the flute. Raising just that phrase up an octave gets the total range to A3 to C5 – perfect!

Next, we have to decide if this melody is actually playable. There are no Bb3 notes, which is good as this is a “quarter hole” note that I find unplayable in most contexts. But there are two other tricky bits. The first is the jump up to C5 in measures 9 and 14; not all flutes can manage that jump cleanly. The other is the C#4 to B3 transition in measures 4 and 10: this is a cross-finger down to a half-hole so the flute needs to be forgiving on the half hole. But neither issue is a road block if the flute is selected carefully.

Recall that I said this started from a Bb instrument chart. That equates to a NAF in the key of G. So if I played the bottom staff on a G NAF, I could play along with the studio recording or a “play along” book and be in the right key. However, my G NAF, which I love in most other contexts, does not cut the mustard here. It has smaller holes making the low half hole less forgiving, and the high “C” is better sliding into from the “B” below it. Auditioning some other flutes in my collection, the best choice seemed to be the C#4 by Pat Haran.

As you can see, the holes are pretty large and the low “B” note is easy to get. The high “C” is also easy to hit with a normal fingering. Also the tuning on this flute is excellent through the entire range, fully chromatic except for the low Bb note.

Now I need a backing track that is 3 whole steps below standard (G down to C#). For that, I turned to the iReal Pro app on the iPad. The chart was already available, so all I had to do was transpose, pick an appropriate style, and pick a tempo. The playalong book I had said 308bpm(!) so I slowed down to 250bpm – still quick but a little more manageable since I don’t have 11 hours a day to practice like Trane did.

So that’s the head. What about soloing?

There have been many masters of music theses (and I’m guessing doctoral theses as well) written analyzing the harmonic content and harmonic movement of Giant Steps and how to approach soloing over it. (Google “giant steps john coltrane analysis thesis” and you’ll find lots of them.) Let’s be perfectly frank for a moment – ain’t nobody got time for that. At least I don’t. So for my solo here I’m using a combination of the “cop out” augmented hexatonic scale, chord tones, and chromatic connections between them. If you want to know more details about this weird scale follow the previous link, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that the scale relative to the flute contains the following notes: Db E F Ab A C. If you arrange the notes from the bottom of the flute up, they are: A C Db E F Ab (A C). Lots of very easily fingered NAF notes,

Having said all that, here’s the video with a couple of run throughs.

Is either successful? I’ll let you be the judge.


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