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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