Heaven on Earth

Half Note

Bassist Christian McBride’s pre-set greeting to the crowd (“How y’all BE?!”) is an indicator that this night at the Blue Note will be anything but sedate. Then again, how could it be sedate with a lineup of McBride, sax master James Carter, keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Adam Rogers, and drummer Joey Baron? Like Terrell Owens playing for the Dallas Cowboys, the group concept for Heaven on Earth does seem outside the box, and even Bill Milkowski’s liner notes call it a “roll of the dice.” However, this gamble works out a lot better than Owens’ truncated stay with America’s Team.

The rowdiness possibilities are confirmed by a titanic opening take on Django Reinhardt’s “Diminishing” that is less Le Hot Club as it is the Head Hunters. Carter and Rogers fly tight formation on the dive-bombing melody while McBride and Baron create a devastating foundation. Medeski fills furiously on B-3, unencumbered by the synths and samples of Medeski Martin Wood. This is soul jazz for the 21st century, tailor-made to burn down the world’s most famous jazz club, and the carnage has only just begun. The band straps a rocket onto a (mostly) trad reading of Lucky Thompson’s “Slam’s Mishap,” and Carter’s baritone-sax-from-hell intro to Leo Parker’s “Blue Leo” creates more sonic destruction than Rogers’ amp could ever wreak.

Heaven on Earth isn’t all pedal-to-the-metal, though. While this group obviously likes to play loud, they’ve also got too much love for texture to just honk all night long: Carter prefaces a cool workup of Victor Young’s “Street of Dreams” with a gorgeous in-the-clear tenor rendition of “On Broadway;” both “Street of Dreams” and the bossa-goes-bari take on “Infiniment” feature McBride on double bass, where he will always do his most expressive work. Heaven on Earth may only be a one-time occurrence, but –like all the best parties –it stays in the forefront of memory, as a reminder that sometimes it’s essential to throw caution in the dumpster and let it all hang out.

Whether he’s playing tenor or soprano sax, shows off a sweet, sinuous tone; when he reinterprets Reinhardt’s classic Nuages with a bass sax, the muscular sound is distancing at first, but then it wraps itself around the listener like an anaconda.
-Christopher John Farley, TIME

There were passages in the program, especially during pieces such as Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me,” in which Carter played with a surprisingly soft and tender sound, his improvisations filled with subtle melodic paraphrases. At other times, he added an appealing, burry edge to his tone—the result calling up images, on soprano saxophone, of Sidney Bechet.