Michael Jackson’s Human Nature: Analysis of Jazz Covers

Michael Jackson‘s “Human Nature” stands as a unique gem within his monumental Thriller album. Its introspective mood and smooth R&B shimmer offered a moment of quiet reflection amid the disco-infused energy of the rest of the record. The song’s gentle melancholy and questioning lyrics have resonated deeply with music lovers, and perhaps even more so with jazz musicians.

Throughout the decades since its release, “Human Nature” has proven to be fertile ground for jazz reinterpretation. From Miles Davis‘ radical transformation to the faithful yet virtuosic approach of David Benoit, the song has become a canvas for exploring diverse musical expressions. Jazz artists have been drawn to the song’s evocative melody, lush harmonies, and introspective themes.

This article delves into some of the most noteworthy jazz covers of “Human Nature.” We’ll analyze how artists like Miles Davis, Vijay Iyer, ELEW and others have reimagined the pop classic, infusing their own unique sensibilities and pushing the boundaries of the original.

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Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, Thriller (1982)

Michael Jackson‘s “Human Nature,” the fifth single from his blockbuster 1982 album Thriller, stands out as a sonic oasis amid the album’s more driving, dance-oriented tracks. This introspective ballad, produced by Quincy Jones, shimmers with smooth R&B and subtle pop sensibilities.

Written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis of the band Toto, “Human Nature” explores themes of urban isolation and the delicate moments of connection that can flourish within it. Jackson’s yearning vocals capture the song’s central question: “Why, why, does he do me that way?” There’s vulnerability and gentle wonder in his delivery.

The instrumentation is lush yet restrained. Electric piano weaves a dreamy backdrop for delicate guitar flourishes and atmospheric synthesizers. The gentle pulsating rhythm section, provided by Toto members, underscores the song’s nocturnal setting and its narrator’s pensive mood.

“Human Nature” represented a stylistic departure for Jackson. As part of Thriller, it demonstrated the album’s impressive breadth, proving Jackson’s command of diverse musical moods alongside the dance-floor anthems that would define his legacy.

Miles Davis’ “Human Nature”, You’re Under Arrest (1985)

Miles Davis‘ 1985 rendition of “Human Nature” on his album You’re Under Arrest showcased the jazz legend’s ability to reimagine pop songs within his unmistakable improvisational style. Davis’ version radically transforms the original’s atmosphere.

Gone are the smooth vocals and shimmering production of Michael Jackson’s version. Davis introduces a funky, angular edge. His trumpet soars over a driving rhythm section led by electric bass and propulsive drums. John Scofield‘s distorted guitar adds streaks of rock-infused attitude to the track.

Davis’ trumpet occasionally echoes the original melody but frequently bursts into vibrant improvisations. In place of introspection, Davis injects a sense of playful defiance and restless energy, recasting the song’s gentle inquiry as a bold statement.

The addition of police whistles and Davis’s gruff declaration of “You’re under arrest!” underscores the album’s broader themes of social commentary and rebellion. Davis’ “Human Nature” isn’t just a jazz standard; it becomes an act of subversion, taking pop’s sweetness and reimagining it as a complex and challenging musical statement.

David Benoit’s “Human Nature”, Heroes (2008)

Pianist David Benoit‘s rendition of “Human Nature” on his 2008 album Heroes pays homage to the song’s lush pop origins while showcasing his own virtuosic jazz sensibilities. Benoit’s version strikes a balance between reverence and reinterpretation.

Benoit maintains the original song’s core melodic structure and harmonic progressions. However, he expands the arrangement with his own flourishes and improvisational touches. His cascading piano arpeggios and soulful melodies add a layer of warmth and complexity to the composition. Benoit’s band provides tasteful accompaniment, featuring subtle percussion and gentle saxophone embellishments.

The overall effect is both familiar and fresh. Listeners are comforted by the recognizable beauty of “Human Nature”, while Benoit’s jazz phrasing and improvisational spirit breathe new life into the composition. His version highlights the song’s timeless appeal and potential for diverse interpretations. As part of Benoit’s Heroes album, this cover also reinforces the concept of paying tribute to musical influences while carving out a unique artistic space.

ELEW’s “Human Nature”, Rockjazz, Vol. 2 (2012)

Pianist Eric Lewis (aka ELEW) delivers a fiery, transformative take on “Human Nature” with his 2012 release on the Rockjazz, Vol. 2 album. This interpretation reimagines the pop classic as a high-energy jazz-rock fusion powerhouse.

ELEW’s piano work is at the forefront. driving the arrangement with relentless energy. He uses the original melody as a springboard for thrilling improvisations and rhythmic variations. The band backs him with intensity – the drums crash, the bass throbs with a rock-infused attitude, and distorted electric guitar adds a raw edge absent from the original.

While Michael Jackson’s version was introspective, ELEW injects a sense of urgency and almost defiant power into his rendition. There’s a palpable tension building throughout the track, a far cry from Michael Jackson’s smooth delivery. This version is “Human Nature” unleashed, a whirlwind of jazz virtuosity and rock sensibilities.

Vijay Iyer’s “Human Nature”, Accelerando (2012)

On his critically acclaimed 2012 album Accelerando, pianist Vijay Iyer deconstructs and reimagines “Human Nature” with his signature blend of intellectual rigor and improvisational daring. Iyer’s rendition is a testament to his ability to dissect familiar melodies and reassemble them in captivating new ways.

Iyer stretches and fragments the original melody, playing with rhythmic displacement and harmonic reconfiguration. The result is a kaleidoscopic reinterpretation, with only glimmers of the original tune shining through the intricate arrangement. Iyer’s piano is in constant dialogue with the propulsive drumming of Marcus Gilmore and the nimble bass work of Stephan Crump, creating a dynamic and unpredictable soundscape.

Unlike versions that pay homage to the song’s pop sensibility, Iyer’s “Human Nature” leans into avant-garde jazz. There’s a deliberate sense of disorientation at times. It’s not a comfortable listening experience, but an intellectually stimulating one. This version challenges the listener to reimagine the song’s potential, showcasing the depth and malleability of even a beloved pop tune when placed in the hands of a skilled and adventurous artist.

Ulysses Owens, Jr.’s “Human Nature”, Onward & Upward (2014)

Drummer and bandleader Ulysses Owens, Jr. brings both reverence and a fresh perspective to his 2014 “Human Nature” arrangement on the album Onward & Upward. His interpretation navigates a captivating middle ground between maintaining the song’s essence and adding his own dynamic voice.

Owens’ rendition features a jazz-trio format with piano and bass providing the harmonic foundation. The arrangement stays true to the original’s melodic and chordal structure, creating a sense of familiarity. However, Owens injects a vibrant energy with his intricate rhythmic work on the drums. His brushwork and accents add layers of texture and propulsion. The pianist and bassist contribute with tasteful solos, further developing the jazz vocabulary of the arrangement.

Owens’ “Human Nature” strikes a balance between honoring the composition’s pop roots and showcasing the improvisational spirit of jazz. The result is a rendition that feels both comforting and thrilling, demonstrating the song’s enduring appeal and its vast potential for reinterpretation within the jazz idiom.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of “Human Nature”

The diverse range of jazz interpretations of “Human Nature” speaks not only to the song’s enduring appeal but also to the immense power of musical reimagination. Jazz, as an art form built on improvisation and transformation, finds inspiration in even the most well-known pop melodies.

The artists explored in this article showcase how a single song can be stretched, dissected, embellished, and ultimately reborn within the jazz idiom. Miles Davis subverted the original, David Benoit paid homage, ELEW electrified it, Vijay Iyer deconstructed it, and Ulysses Owens, Jr. found fresh energy within its familiar structure.

These jazz covers aren’t mere imitations; they are conversations – a dialogue between the original artistic vision and the boundless possibilities of improvisation. Through them, “Human Nature” is simultaneously preserved and renewed, ensuring its continued relevance and inviting new generations of listeners and musicians to discover the timeless beauty within its simple question: “Why?”

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Best Song Covers’ Series!