The Giant Blue Count Steps Down

Jul 23, 2020
I did an interview with Bill Piburn about a month ago for his Fingerstyle Journal, and when it came out a few days ago I realized a couple of thing: First, in talking about my experiences thirty years ago as an undergraduate and (briefly) graduate music student, I sound almost as insufferable as I surely was at the time. And second, I forgot to mention one of the most formidable musicians I studied with, the guitarist Tom Ross.

The place I went to school did not particularly cater to the mainstream-minded. I like to think that I would now appreciate the way people at that institution preferred to view the norms from a sidelong angle, as curiosities to maintain passing awareness of while pursuing one's own thing. But as an unformed kid still trying to learn enough of the rules to know why and when they were worth breaking, such professorial iconoclasm could be nothing short of maddening. I suppose the flip side, a trade school approach that taught nothing but the rules, would have gotten under my skin as well, so there's probably just no pleasing an 18-year old.

Tom Ross definitely fell into the iconoclast category, but man did he have the chops to back it up. One day I was hopelessly lurching through "Giant Steps" with a string of four-note patterns, as per my Materials And Principles of Jazz II class (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30-11:50am, Center For The Arts, Building IV). As usual, Tom was teaching on his D'Angelico archtop, one of the loudest, most bell-like fretted instruments I've ever heard. During a pause in my struggles, he cocked his head, looked into the middle distance and mused, "Yeah...makes a nice ballad, too." And proceeded to improvise a gorgeous, swingingly introspective chord-melody arrangement that revealed more about Coltrane's etude than any amount of  my inept "running the changes" could ever hope to.

Many musicians were drawn to my school by its world music program, and Tom was one of them, an avid student of solkattu, the South Indian rhythm solfege. One of the pieces he gave his students to work on was a blues in which every line ended with a series of "Coltrane changes," moves nicked from "Giant Steps" and "Countdown" to bring you, through a series of unexpectedly remote chords, into the next line of the twelve-bar form. Meanwhile, the syncopation of the changes was every bit as unexpected to Western ears, and best counted out using – of course – South Indian techniques. But the best part of the tune was the title, which, true to bebop form, Tom had made sure to spin from his source material into "The Giant Blue Count Steps Down." I've always suspected he wrote the tune mostly not to let a great title go to waste.

Thankfully, in this afternoon's Youtube live stream, I won't be talking about Coltrane at all. I'll be explaining the foundations of using Travis picking on the blues, and answering questions about alternating-thumb technique in general. If you've got a question of your own, email be back before noon CST today and I'll try and include it in the mix.

You can find the live stream at the link below. If you can't make it, it will be archived immediately afterwards and the same link will take you right to the replay.

Travis Picking The Blues

More soon,