Enrico Rava and Rome’s PM Jazz Lab Honor Michael Jackson

Band in the mirror: Jazz musicians and the King of Pop

Enrico Rava
Enrico Rava (in spotlight) in 2011

1 of 2      Next

“I think that Michael Jackson was a giant of 20th-century music.” The sentiment is growing lately within jazz, particularly since Jackson’s untimely death in 2009. But the King of Pop’s disciples tend to skew young-the children of the 1980s who grew up with massive hit records like Thriller and Bad. The speaker here, however, is 73-year-old Enrico Rava, the trumpeter from Trieste, Italy. He was so impressed by Jackson’s music, in fact, that he performed two concerts of it in Rome in 2011. Those shows are now Rava’s latest album for the ECM label, On the Dance Floor.

“Usually I play my own music,” he says. “But in this case I wanted to play something that I really like. So I said, ‘OK, I love this music so much I’m going to do something with it.'”

When pint-sized Michael and his brothers hit it big, Rava was 30 and working on the New York jazz scene. He was back in Italy as the singer gained worldwide superstardom in the ’80s, and Rava barely noticed. Not that he could miss Jackson entirely. “He was on every jukebox, all over the world,” he acknowledges. “But I was young and very ‘only jazz.’ I never really concentrated on it.”

It was only after Jackson’s demise, and the worldwide media furor that accompanied it, that Rava appreciated the musician’s phenomenal talent. “I was amazed,” he says. “It was not only the music, it was his dancing, his movements, his presence onstage. It was like opera-that kind of power.”

Rava is associated with Auditorium Parco della Musica, a world-renowned concert venue in Rome; specifically, he is artistic director of the PM Jazz Lab, one of the auditorium’s three resident jazz ensembles. His recent concerts with the PMJL have included programs by George Gershwin and Lester Bowie, in addition to Rava’s own music. In the spring of 2011, he decided Jackson would be his next subject, asking Mauro Ottolini, a veteran tuba player, trombonist and composer, to write arrangements.

The parameters Rava set, however, were surprising. Of the 10 tunes he chose for the concert, only three were among what he calls Jackson’s “super-hits.” The others come from Jackson’s final three recordings, when his commercial juggernaut was fading: 1995’s HIStory, 1997’s Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix and 2001’s Invincible. That was no accident. Rava wanted to give attention to those lesser-known Jackson efforts, which he feels are more than worthy. “They may not be his best records, but to me, they are the most interesting,” he says. “When people think about Michael Jackson, they think about Thriller, Bad. They think about Off the Wall, which is not my favorite record: There are some marvelous tunes but so much dense disco production. I cannot stand it. His last records, there’s nothing like that. It’s very straight-to-the-music.”

Rava also directed Ottolini not to “jazzify” the songs, precisely because of their straight-to-the-music character. “I just heard a record from a Polish quintet, very good musicians who play all of Michael Jackson’s super-hits in a jazz way-and they sound horrible,” Rava says. “The secret of that kind of music is not to try to make a jazz version. It stands on its own.” He wanted the arrangements as close to the originals as possible. While “Thriller” draws on the 1987 rendition by Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Bowie, too, hewed close enough to Jackson that it hardly matters.

Rava performed the concert with the PMJL on May 20, 2011. The acclaim was such that he took the show on tour around Italy, including a second Parco della Musica performance that November. In 2013 he is booked to perform Jackson’s music in France and Germany, with hopes to make a wider tour of Europe in support of On the Dance Floor (which comprises parts of both Rome concerts). “It worked so well,” Rava says, “they started asking to have this project all over.”

Thus did Enrico Rava join the ranks of Michael Jackson’s jazz interpreters, alongside younger players like Ben Williams, Joey DeFrancesco and Vijay Iyer. But, as he points out, the club is not as generational as it seems; Miles Davis and Bowie are also members, and not the only elders. “Ennio Morricone, who is a very tough guy, said exactly the same thing about Michael Jackson that I did-[that he] was a giant of the last century,” says Rava. Nor does he think it’s a fad in the wake of the singer’s death. “It’s very, very strong music,” he says. “It will last a very long time.”

MJ Jazz: More Inspired Jazz Takes On Michael Jackson’s Music

Miles Davis
“Human Nature”

Jackson’s 1983 Top 10 hit was a staple of Miles’ repertoire during his 1980s comeback, appearing on his 1985 album, You’re Under Arrest (Columbia), and performed at nearly every concert he gave during the final six years of his life. Miles owned the tune so completely that it is sometimes included on other artists’ Miles Davis tribute albums.

Gretchen Parlato
“I Can’t Help It”

Written by Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene, “I Can’t Help It” is a slinky, sexy bit of R&B included on Jackson’s Off the Wall album. On Parlato’s 2009 album, In a Dream (ObliqSound), she makes it a sort of airy insinuation, her understated voice accompanied only by Lionel Loueke’s guitar and tongue-clicks.

Vijay Iyer
“Human Nature”

Iyer’s solo interpretation from 2010 (he also recorded the song with his trio for last year’s ACT release Accelerando) has more in common with Parlato than either Jackson or Miles. He plays it strictly sotto voce, mining it for subtlety and emotional complexity and letting the melody guide the rhythmic approach, rather than vice versa.

Joey DeFrancesco
“The Way You Make Me Feel”

Sometimes, rendering Jackson’s music as down-and-dirty jazz really does work. On his 2010 Jackson tribute album, Never Can Say Goodbye (HighNote), organist DeFrancesco plays the 1987 hit as stomping soul jazz, singing the song himself in a cocky baritone atop swing so visceral it’s nearly a parody.