Writings about Music

That Rhythm Dance You Into Sunlight

the Music of Michael Jackson

I hear the soul of Africa in Michael Jackson’s voice with sublime expressive nectar like none other. His rhythmic and melodic melismatic fluidity and unforced power towers over the field much like John Coltrane did. 

Michael was a master of the gatra vina, a Sanskrit term with gatra denoting the human body, and vina indicating instrument. This is the sole musical instrument created by God or nature, with all others produced by humans. Many would argue that the gatra vina remains the most perfect and sublime musical instrument in existence.

A sacred Sanskrit text from ancient India, the Natya Shastra, attributed to Bharata, suggests that the performing arts of theater, dance and music are one. Jackson’s dancing prowess are on par with his singing, and his body movements are enhanced by myriad facial and ocular expressions.

My personal favorite music of Michael Jackson came late in his career with the Jacksons, and early in his solo career. This includes "Shake Your Body" from the Destiny album by the Jacksons; "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough", "Rock with You" and "Off the Wall" from Michael's Off the Wall album with Quincy Jones; "Human Nature" and "P.Y.T." from Michael's Thriller album with Quincy Jones; "Another Part of Me" from the Bad album with Quincy Jones; and "Remember the Time" from Michael's Dangerous album with Teddy Riley.

While acknowledging that such comparisons may be incommensurable for some if not most, sometimes interrelations between diverse musical forms leap out for myself transcending translucent borders, and I came to the unexpected yet undeniable conclusion that if we consider "Shake Your Body", "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough", "Rock With You", and "Off the Wall" (the song) as a single entity with four parts that one may listen to in sequence (these songs seem to naturally unify as one), the combined and greatly varied rhythmic pulsation and propulsion surpasses, in these core regards, works like Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries"; "Part One" of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; the third movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata; the Savoy recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing "Cherokee"; the John Coltrane Quartet playing "Impressions"; "LA Woman" by The Doors; "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin, and any other rhythmically charged music I know of in the entire spectrum of Western music, possibly excepting the song "Beads of Sweat" recorded by Laura Nyro. A simple explanation for Michael’s accomplishment is that he managed to harness the full potency of his African and African American roots and innovations through a timely symbiosis with producer Quincy Jones.

The collaboration between Jackson and Jones certainly was historic, and the idea of combining a rhythm and blues, soul, and pop-inspired vocalist with a master of jazz was brilliantly successful both artistically and popularly, the latter being a gargantuan understatement.

Every listen to the music Michael and Quincy created reveals freshly discovered details in the exquisitely rich textures woven by musicians that include Brazilian percussionist, Paulinho da Costa, playing alternately, agogo, cuica, and caxixi or ganza on five of the eight songs mentioned above. Drummers include John Robinson (no relation) on four of the songs, and Ed Greene, Jeff Porcaro or Leon Ndugu Chancler on the others. Guitarist David Williams, who appears on four of the songs, has a deliciously sweet and limpid tone, and style reminiscent of the African kora. His playing dances excitedly amidst the drums and Brazilian percussion like a pitched percussionist. Essential contributions made by the individuals responsible for arrangements, bass, synthesizer, keyboards, and other guitarists, etc., are too numerous to include here, but may be checked online by those interested.

Michael composed "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough" and "Another Part of Me"; Michael and Randy Jackson composed "Shake Your Body"; Rod Temperton composed "Rock With You" and "Off the Wall"; Steve Porcaro and John Bettis composed "Human Nature"; James Ingram and Quincy Jones composed "P.Y.T"; and Teddy Riley, Michael and Bernard Belle composed "Remember the Time".

The music that captures the flavor of my native New York City best of all is "Human Nature". There should be an ordinance in Los Angeles against anything as beautiful as this recording because it leaves me yearning for the city every time.

If the human voice is the gatra vina, what does one call the singing emanating from birds? Some of the most thrilling music I’ve heard this year came from a solitary mockingbird who held court in a plush tree with astonishingly varied and original phrases while singing out his heart. This past spring, during several evening walks, I stopped to hear him, and covertly avoided interrupting or scaring off the extraordinary extemporizations. In past years, I have brought both Pandit Jasraj and Lee Konitz, on separate occasions, to hear this magnificent singing tradition performed by different mockingbirds, and both were impressed. Pandit Jasraj found the songbird’s varied invention like "an Indian classical musician," and Lee absolutely enthused about the joyous “tooting,” a noteworthy attribute reflected upon by Harper Lee.

- Michael Robinson, September 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Thoughts of Mainstream by Ratzo Harris, and our subsequent online exchange, inspired me to finally write about Michael Jackson, contemplated for some time in search of a theme and form.

Special thanks to Larry Crook for identifying the Brazilian percussion instruments played by Paulhino da Costa.

Terrible to hear of shocking allegations against Michael Jackson subsequent to writing this essay focusing on his music in view of his earlier acquittal.

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.