Miles Davis Covers Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (1983)

What happens when the Prince of Darkness covers the King of Pop?

Miles Davis’ decision to record a studio version of Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit, “Human Nature,” caused Al Foster, his friend and drummer, to walk out mid-session, thus putting an end to their longtime collaboration. Davis chalked it up to Foster’s unwillingness to “play that funky backbeat,” and brought in his nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr., to finish the job.

Foster must’ve really hated that song.

Say what you will, “Human Nature” is–like most Jackson hits–an ear worm.

Depending on who you talk to, Davis’ studio track, above, is a either a straightforward homage in which his horn recreates “Jackson’s breathy intimacy” or “flat, schmaltzy elevator music.”

People’s feelings for it tend to echo their response to Jackson’s original, to which Davis cleaved pretty closely.

“Human Nature” was written by Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcaro, the son of a jazz musician who idolized Davis. He was understandably honored that his dad’s hero chose to cover his work along with Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time,” on 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, one of the prolific artist’s final albums.

Davis’ association no doubt contributes to the tune’s ongoing popularity. Those who want to compare and contrast, can take their pick of reggae, hip-hop, electronica and funked up New Orleans brass versions.

But back to “Human Nature” as rendered by Miles Davis. Most critics prefer the live version, below, captured July 7, 1988, at Montreux. Slate’s Fred Kaplan described it as “an upbeat rouser” through which Davis “prances.”

As Davis himself explained in a 1985 interview with Richard Cook:

On a song like “Human Nature,” you have to play the right thing. And the right thing is around the melody. I learned that stuff from Coleman Hawkins. Coleman could play a melody, get ad-libs, run the chords – and you still heard the melody. I play “Human Nature,” varies every night. After I play the melody, that tag on the end is mine to have fun with. It’s in another key … uh, D natural. Move up a step or so to F natural. Then you can play it any way you want to.

Another remark from the same interview proved prescient:

You don’t have to do like Wynton Marsalis and play “Stardust “and that shit… Why can’t “Human Nature” be a standard? It fits. A standard fits like a thoroughbred. The melody and everything is just right, and every time you hear it you want to hear it some more. And you leave enough of it to know what you want to hear again. When you hear it again, the same feeling comes over you. 

Related Content:

The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grateful Dead in 1970: Hear the Complete Recordings

Miles Davis Opens for Neil Young and “That Sorry-Ass Cat” Steve Miller at The Fillmore East (1970)

Watch Miles Davis Improvise Music for Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle’s New Wave Thriller (1958)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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