The violinist hopes her new album inspires listeners to cast their ballots
By David Templeton
For Grammy-nominated violinist Regina Carter, the unique notion of cutting a jazz album about the power of casting a ballot in America was not all that hard to imagine, even if it did take her a while to decide on the specific form and musical direction that record would ultimately adopt.
“The original idea came from a conversation about voting I had with Kabir Sehgal,” explains Carter, the recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship and the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Award for Jazz, “and then the idea went through a few different changes and incarnations.”
Sehgal, with whom Carter had worked on the 2018 project called Fandango at the Wall—a CD created to accompany the bestselling book of the same name—is a renowned bassist and percussionist, composer and producer, and the author of over a dozen books, from 2008’s Jazzocracy: Jazz, Democracy, and the Creation of a New American Mythology to 2019’s P is for Poppadoms! An Indian Alphabet Book). Seghal and Carter also worked together on Karrin Allyson’s 2019 Shoulder to Shoulder project, marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote.
“When he asked what my next project was going to be, we started talking about that, about voting in America,” Carter recalls. “And we ended up talking about the 2020 election, and how angry and disappointed I was that so many people, especially Black people, hadn’t voted in the last election. Voting in my house, growing up, was mandatory. My parents would always discuss the candidates that were running, and the issues that were up that year, and not just in major elections. They taught us that the smaller elections are just as important.”
As a child, growing up in Detroit, Carter would routinely go with her parents to the polls. She would hear vivid stories of the marches for equality, where Black Americans were beaten and hosed, where dogs were set loose on them as they marched.
“My parents and grandparents had to go through so much ugliness in order to give me the privilege to vote, so for me, to know that so many people, especially so many African Americans, did not vote last time, I was just appalled,” Carter says. “And you know, some people that I speak with say, ‘Well, I don’t like either candidate.’ And I can understand that, but for me, when I go to the polls, I’m not just voting for a candidate. I’m voting for those people who marched, who put their lives in danger, and even sometimes lost their lives, so I could have this right. That’s the conversation I had with Kabir, and he said, ‘Have you ever thought of doing a record, a voting-rights record?’ And that’s how Swing States was born.”
Recorded in just two days earlier this year, and released in July, Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground, features the Regina Carter Freedom Band, an ensemble of world-class jazz musicians assembled just for this project; trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, bassist Alexis Cuadrado, drummer Harvey Mason, and Sehgal—who also produced the record under his own Tiger Turn Productions—appearing on bass. The album features 14 tracks, alternating between short, spoken-word recollections by the musicians and rollicking and/or soothing jazz renditions of classic tunes commonly identified with the “swing states” of Wisconsin (“On Wisconsin!”), Louisiana (“You Are My Sunshine”), Colorado (“Rocky Mountain High”), Florida (“Swanee River”), Georgia (“Georgia On My Mind”), Kansas (“Home on the Range”), Pennsylvania (“Pennsylvania” state song), and Michigan (“Dancing in the Street,” “Faygo Boat Song”). Just for good measure, Carter delivers a short, sweet, simple and deeply stirring rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
“Originally,” she explains, “we were looking at music that was popular during the civil-rights era, tunes that became identified with the marchers. There are so many important and tragic events that happened in the United States during that period, and there are tunes that will forever be associated with those moments.” As time progressed, Carter and Seghal shifted the concept. “We stated talking about the American states that can historically swing a vote one way or another,” she says, “states that often have a profound effect on how an election goes. From that discussion grew the idea of doing tunes that come from those states.”
By then, trumpeter and arranger John Daversa had joined the project.
“I’d worked with John Daversa on Karrin Allyson’s Shoulder to Shoulder album, more or less,” she notes, adding, “We hadn’t actually spoken . . . or formally met . . . but we were both involved in that project, and of course I’ve known who he was for years. I loved the recording he did of the Beatles tunes.” That was 2016’s Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles. Through Seghal, the connection was made to Daversa, who quickly agreed to participate, and to do the arrangements in addition to playing trumpet on the album. In short order, Batiste and Mason had also signed on to the project. A recording date was set, but the specific tunes that would be performed were still being chosen.
“By the time we decided we were going to focus on swing states, we had to just get down to it and figure out the tunes,” Carter recalls. “John and I would do a lot of back and forth, he or I would suggest a tune, or Kabir would suggest a tune, and then I would play a sample of how I would maybe approach the song, so John could hear it when he was writing the arrangement. We knew we wanted my voice on the violin to be a specific part of each arrangement, incorporating the way I might approach something, always having that in mind rather than coming up with a more generic arrangement and finding a way to fit me into it. Once that started, since we were on a deadline, we just dug in and got it done.”
Every tune chosen made it onto the record, though there was a moment when “Michigan, My Michigan” was briefly considered. Believed by many to be Michigan’s official state song (it’s actually the similarly titled “My Michigan,” formally adopted as such in 1937), it uses the same melody as the Christmas carol “Oh Tannenbaum.” Not wanting to include a tune so jarringly holiday-sounding, Marvin Gaye’s 1964 “Dancing in the Street” (co-written with William Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, and first recorded by Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas) was chosen to represent Michigan, and specifically Detroit, Carter’s home town.
“John Daversa did an amazing job on the arrangement,” says Carter. “When I heard it, I couldn’t have even imagined that he would turn the song into such a ballad. I was completely taken by that. It’s actually my favorite piece on the record.”
The entire experience was joyous, Carter points out, despite the short two-day recording schedule, which she laughingly points out is a long time in the studio for a jazz album. “It was beautiful,” Carter says. “We got the charts in the studio. Everyone just blended so well. It was a fun session from beginning to end. It was like we’d all known each other forever.”
The decision to include the brief spoken-word moments, with every musician talking about his or her own home state, their memories around voting, and the importance of casting a ballot, was made on the fly.
“We were in the studio, having all of these conversations, and I don’t remember if it was Kabir or someone else who said, ‘Let’s record some of these and put them on the record,’” Carter relates. “And hearing all of them speak—especially Harvey, who has such a radio voice—I thought it would be really beautiful for people to hear these stories. At first I was afraid it was going to feel like a lecture, or that it would seem forced. But I actually ended up thinking that it gives the listener a bit of insight as to why these tunes were chosen, and everyone talked about the state they were from and their experiences in those states. I think it works really well.”
The response to the record has been extremely positive, Carter allows, and many have said Swing States will continue to be meaningful, moving, and entertaining long after the 2020 election is decided. As for the album’s other purpose—to gently encourage people who weren’t planning to vote this year to change their minds—the record’s effectiveness in getting anyone undecided to the polls has yet to be determined.
“I can just only hope and pray that come Election Day, people will know that voting is a right that some of us haven’t always had, and that could be taken away again,” Carter concludes. “We haven’t had it that long, but it’s a lot harder to get something back once it’s been taken away from you. And if you don’t vote, it’s not even being taken. You’re giving it away.”
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