Human Nature: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album included some pretty amazing jams – “Beat It”, “Wanna Be Starting Something”, “Thriller”, and “Billie Jean”, as well as the Paul McCartney-featuring “The Girl Is Mine”, amazing in its own right for the section of conversation between Jackson and McCartney. So, the album covers a pretty wide spectrum. Of the songs on that album, “Human Nature” is not the one that I would expect to inspire jazz musicians and hip-hop producers, but real life is funny that way. “Human Nature” has been sampled a number of times, but the one that matters is Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” transformed by Large Professor’s hard drums, bass, and horn samples layered on top of the basic Michael Jackson loop.

Also, check out our list of the Best Jazz Albums of All Time!

But I digress… Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” It’s a song from 1982, and sounds like it based on the synthesizer sounds. Fun fact – the drums on Jackson’s Thriller are from Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, who was playing with Miles Davis about a decade earlier making jams like this one, putting his hard drumbreaks behind this mind-blowing jazz funk. “Human Nature” is quite a bit tamer than that work. Jackson’s ballad starts with the synthesizer that would be looped up about a decade later by Large Professor and then adds some half-time drums and subtle synth strings underneath the verses and some guitar that reminds me in a way of something that Lionel Loueke might play. At about 2:00, there’s a very cool break down before the next verse at about 2:15 – that section returns around 3:20 for the ending of the song, but otherwise they basically stay in the groove that starts the tune. It’s a nice ballad, definitely aged much better than a lot of things released in 1982.

In 1985, just a few years after the release of Thriller, Miles Davis put out You’re Under Arrest, featuring his take on “Human Nature” – also quite a bit tamer than the jazz-funk he was making a decade earlier. Miles is joined by John Scofield on guitar, Vince Wilburn, Jr. on drums, Robert Irving III on synthesizers, and Darryl Jones on bass for this version of the tune. The opening of this version is very similar to the original on Thriller. Miles’ trumpet comes in around 0:25 to play the vocal line over the instrumental backing, still entirely faithful to the original arrangement and sound off of the version on Thriller. It’s Miles’ trumpet, but this is smooth jazz along the lines of some later smooth jazz versions of pop tunes. Fine playing all around, but not much feeling (to my ears, anyway). When Miles was interested in Sly Stone, he came up with On The Corner – when he was interested in Michael Jackson, he came up with this… the 1980s were a difficult time.

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Roughly three decades after Michael Jackson’s and Miles Davis’ takes on “Human Nature,” the tune has resurfaced as a vehicle for piano. The first version I’ll look at here is from David Benoit on his Heroes album from 2008. Benoit, on piano and synths, is joined by David Hughes on bass and and Jamey Tate on drums. Benoit starts this version by playing the synth line from the original version of the tune on piano over Tate’s cymbals. He adds some synth strings behind the piano and some light electric piano. It’s light and smooth and probably a well-done version of this type of thing. Sort of sounds like hold music for a corporate phone line, though Benoit does his thing with the tune, including some piano improvisation and a bit of call and response between the acoustic and electric piano. They’re faithful to the arrangement of the tune from Thriller, and bring it to a similar finish. Really, this isn’t my thing, but it sounds like they’re doing exactly what they want to do with this tune.

Eric Lewis (this Eric Lewis) also did a version of “Human Nature”, recording as ELEW on his 2012 album Rockjazz, Vol. 2. Lewis plays “Human Nature” as a piano solo, opening up this version in a way that’s faithful to the arrangement on Thriller. By around 0:40, he’s playing the vocal line over a subtler backing than the synth lines from Jackson’s and Davis’ versions above. Around 1:30, Lewis opens this up and builds a dense piece of solo piano that is based off of Jackson’s tune, but is a very original take on this tune. At around 2:30, Lewis plays an ascending line and then brings it to a close with a very low note. Great smooth piano playing, and an interesting rearrangement of the tune to make it work this way for solo piano. I’ll just mention here that this is the official video from ELEW for this song.

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Vijay Iyer’s 2012 album Accelerando, featuring Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums, featured the trio’s take on “Human Nature.” They start this version with a brief solo piano introduction from Iyer before the bass and drums join in. The “Human Nature” groove starts around 0:25 here, but by 0:45 or so, the trio has opened this up in a different way from the versions above, giving it a signature sound from this trio, rhythmically complex, but completely natural. Iyer’s piano plays Jackson’s vocal line over the stuttering drums and bass, leading to a brief vamp around 2:00 that opens up to the bridge section (compare this to the part around 2:15 in the original version of the tune on Thriller), then back to another verse. At around 3:15, the trio loosens up a bit, locked into this stuttering groove as Iyer, Crump, and Gilmore all play rhythmically off of each other in an excellent section. At around 4:15 or 4:20, Iyer plays some minimal melodic lines, reminding the ear that this is “Human Nature,” then continues in this vein over some deep piano notes while Crump’s bass plays a bit in a higher register. Gilmore’s drums, meanwhile, have kept this groove going while adding a good bit of rhythmic complexity… Ah! Around 5:40 or so this is something truly majestic, Iyer playing arpeggios between the low, rhythmic piano notes and around the “Human Nature” melody… At 6:30 they break it back down to something more closely aligned with the original arrangement of this tune (similar to the way they started this version after the piano introduction). After playing with this briefly, Crump takes a bass solo starting around 7:00 over some light piano comping and Gilmore’s brushed snare. At 7:40, the drums and bass drop out briefly as Iyer’s piano plays the bridge part of the tune, joined shortly by Crump’s bowed bass and Gilmore’s drums. They quickly build this part up over the bass swells from Crump, coming right back to the feeling that they built up earlier in this tune. They start to break this down around 9:00 or so, with the piano, bass, and drums all dissolving away. Excellent, excellent playing and arrangement of “Human Nature” from this trio. Who else can do this?

The final version of “Human Nature” that I’ll look at here is from the just-released Onward & Upward album from Ulysses Owens, Jr. Owens on drums is joined for this tune by Christian Sands on piano and Reuben Rogers on bass (though he has a larger band on most of the other tunes on this album). Owens has described Sands’ piano playing as being “in a Jason Moran-Vijay Iyer vein,” ironically enough given that Iyer has taken on “Human Nature” as a piano trio tune as well. This version starts with Owens’ unaccompanied drums before Sands’ piano chords join in at about 0:10 or 0:15, followed shortly thereafter by a few notes from Rogers’ bass. The “Human Nature” theme starts around 0:40, with Sands’ piano just briefly playing something like the synth line from Michael Jackson’s original before moving into the melody of the vocal line over Rogers’ bassline, locked in with Owens’ kick drum. Sands adds some beautiful blues touches, kind of a gospel feel, to the tune’s melody through the verses and the trio moves into the bridge section around 1:50 or so, picking up a little steam afterward as Owens’ ride cymbal propels the trio. At around 3:00, there’s a great, subtle transition as Sands’ piano takes the bass part, leading into a bass solo from Rogers. He takes a strong solo over Sands’ piano chords and steady drums from Owens. At about 3:45, Sands powers back in and Owens’ cymbals crash behind him adding the right amount of intensity for this section. At 4:45 or so, Sands returns to the “Human Nature” melody. At the end of this tune, Sands’ piano plays something like the synth line in the original version of the tune, then brings it down to a gentle landing on a nice, fat chord. Great playing from Sands, Rogers, and Owens on version, an excellent straight-ahead piano trio version of the Michael Jackson tune.

“Human Nature” has been used by jazz musicians in a few different settings, from Miles Davis’ very straightforward cover of the tune to the recent covers by David Benoit, ELEW, Vijay Iyer, and Ulysses Owens, Jr. Michael Jackson’s original ballad sounds dated, no doubt, but holds up remarkably well thirty years later. David Benoit and ELEW took the tune in a smooth jazz direction. The versions from Vijay Iyer and Ulysses Owens, Jr. are strong versions of contemporary jazz, and point the way for future versions of this tune. Where to next? Keep listening.