Swing Vote: What Would the Presidential Election Sound Like as Jazz?

What does Ben Carson sound like?

Not, what does his voice sound like?—the sleepy, husky tenor has become familiar to anyone who’s watched a Republican debate or three—but what would the essence of Carson’s character sound like if it were converted into song?

That’s a question that the pianist Marcus Roberts set out to answer in a new EP, Race for the White House, of four compositions devoted to the presidential election: one each for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Carson. Roberts picked out the candidates who seemed most ripe for interpretation, two from each party. He’s been rolling the tracks out slowly, and you can hear the Carson song, “I Did Chop Down That Cherry Tree” for the first time below.

What’s the point of such a project? Some reticent musicians, asked to explain their work, like to retreat behind the old aphorism that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But converting the endless talk of a presidential campaign into instrumental jazz? That seems even crazier.

Roberts, a pianist known for his association with Wynton Marsalis, told me had two motives. One was simple: Election coverage was everywhere around him when he wrote the tunes in November, and it started to seep into his creative process. “Like everyone, I’m sure that’s all you can hear about, even now in February,” he said. “Part of it was the diversity in the different temperaments of the each candidate. Some of them are very identifiable, and I wanted to try to musically describe a little bit about each personality.”

The other motive was a frustration at the sense that jazz is a museum piece, Roberts said. “No matter what you do with a lot of the great songs, you’re dated just by referencing that this song was written in 1938 or 1952,” he said, leading him to want to write new material. Roberts is disappointed that there haven’t been questions about the importance of safeguarding America’s cultural inheritance during the presidential debates so far, and he put forth jazz as perhaps an ideal art form for democracy—and perhaps a model of cooperation that would be well-taken in a polarized moment.

“Jazz music has that sense of inclusion that’s built into the music,” he said. “It’s democratic in nature—when we’re on the bandstand creating music, we get to celebrate our individual identity and function, but it’s always within a shared purpose.”

How well did it work? Here’s each song on the EP, a little about what Roberts was thinking, and my verdict as a jazzbro political reporter.

What is Roberts trying to do? The tune kicks off with a series of beats by the drummer Jason Marsalis, and then Marsalis with the bassist Rodney Jordan. It’s meant to evoke a hacking axe. The title is an allusion to George Washington’s famous, apocryphal tree-felling. When Roberts was writing the tune, a surreal drama was playing out as Carson insisted he’d tried to stab a friend and classmate as a boy and once gone after his mother with a hammer—even as reporters tried and failed to find evidence of the incident.

How well does he do it? I rate this a pretty good likeness of the Carson experience. There’s a leisurely lope to it, and a light playfulness to the song that I think captures the doctor’s friendly, somewhat goofy demeanor. The somewhat knotty melody, turned around a taunting bass riff, and the way Marsalis solos under a bass vamp both seem to capture the unpredictability of a Carson speech or answer, which can veer from pleasant banality to terrifying innuendo with no warning—as does the abrupt finish. But is the song too energetic? “If we’re talking about Ben Carson the surgeon, it is, but if we’re talking about the 12-year-old kid running after you with a knife or hammer?” Roberts said. He deems this the most like its respective candidate, and I agree. A-.