Who's Bad?

A group of local jazz bands riffs on the best-selling album of all time -- Michael Jackson's Thriller

Michael Jackson's Thriller sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, spawned seven Top 10 hits, inspired a dance and fashion craze, and revolutionized MTV with its slick, film-inspired videos. Most incredibly, it convinced my cousin to pry the Prince poster off the back of her bedroom door and replace it with an image of the record's impish creator, feet splayed in the classic “Billie Jean” pose. Refracted through 20 years, numerous follow-up duds, and bizarre behavior on Jackson's part, the best-selling album of all time is even more impressive: They simply don't make over-the-top cultural phenomena like that anymore.

When several local jazz bands were looking for an album to turn “inside out” as part of a music series by the same name, they found the perfect specimen in the Gloved One's major opus. With its delicious pop hooks, rock riffs, and smooth R&B grooves, Thriller has something for everyone (and it's familiar to Gen-Xers everywhere). Even so, don't expect to see anyone pant Jackson's lyrics or moonwalk across the stage at the ensuing event.

Married Couple (led by bass player Lisa Mezzacappa, who also curated) doesn't try to astound with improvisational pyrotechnics. The group favors tone and mood, building themes layer by layer with plaintive horns and frantic interplay between bass and drums. The band isn't afraid to tackle tough, Tom Waitsian shifts in rhythm and texture, even if it means — gasp! — sight-reading off a sheet of music. At its best, Married Couple approaches the swinging sensibilities of '60s Blue Note jazz, informed by further developments in world music. Rather than indulge in stale solos, the rhythm section pushes the horns to new heights of improvisation. All the bands on the bill (including Blowout, the Mitch Marcus Quintet, and Good for Cows) place a premium on improv, but they also share a talent for creative arrangements. Jackson might not appreciate the tribute, but Quincy Jones would no doubt approve.

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