JOHN COLTRANE’S GIANT STEPS by Chris Raschka

JOHN COLTRANE’S GIANT STEPS

by & illustrated by
Age Range: 5 - 8
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In a picture book that is simultaneously simpler and much more abstract than his earlier celebrations of Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, 1992) and Thelonious Monk (Mysterious Thelonious, 1997), Raschka attempts to depict visually saxophone great John Coltrane’s “marvelous and tricky composition,” “Giant Steps.” A hip, avuncular narrator greets readers and then introduces the performers: a box, a snowflake (rendered as two, overlapping, squashy triangles), a raindrop, and a trademark Raschka kitten. The geometric shapes appear in translucent pastel watercolors; the kitten is outlined in dark gray with swift brushstrokes. The “characters” layer themselves over one another to create colorful “sheets of sound” to the accompaniment of narrative interpolations: “Hello, snowflake. Our snowflake is taking the piano part tonight, / showing us the harmony, the beautiful frame. Niceness.” This layering manages uncannily to deliver a visual approximation of the layers of sound in the composition; the kitten in particular, with her sometimes swoopy, sometimes angular lines that dart across the page, evokes the complex melodic line with its runs and stops, her onomatopoetic “Meow!” echoing the sound of the sax. This offering differs from the two previous in that it seeks to deliver a purely visual representation of sound with no melodic textual accompaniment, and once the characters are set up, there isn’t anywhere to go. The narrative constructs a sonic/visual train wreck of sorts, in which the characters lose control of the music. There follows a diagram of the “problem,” with circles and arrows to point out where each player got it wrong: “Now box, box, my friend. Much too heavy on page 18. I know you’re our foundation and you’ve got to be strong. But can you be strong yet light? Hmmmmm? Try.” This hiatus approaches preciousness, and while it gives the narrative an opportunity to discuss Coltrane’s genius, it does exactly what “Giant Steps” does not—it causes the piece to lose its momentum. Raschka has set the bar high for himself: conceptually, this interpretation nears brilliance, but in the end it loses control. Nevertheless: a fascinating and ambitious attempt to render the purely aural in a purely visual form. (Picture book. 5-8)

Pub Date: July 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-689-84598-7
Page count: 32pp
Publisher: Richard Jackson/Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2002




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