James Carter et. al. – Heaven on Earth (Half Note, 2009)

September 2009

Saxophonist James Carter leads a supergroup of modern jazz musicians through a live jam session recorded at the Blue Note in New York. In addition to Carter on tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones, are John Medeski on Hammond B3 Organ, Adam Rogers in guitar, Christian McBride on bass and Joey Baron on drums.

Although each of these men is a bandleader in their own right, they work together admirably and create a fun and productive concert. They open with Django Reinhardt’s “Diminishing” which has a fast and funky feel with saxophone and organ taking the lead. Raw saxophone and sharp sounding guitar seem to tease Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” at times.

Medeski and McBride lock in together for some swirling organ over bubbling bass, and Carter responds by getting wild with some honks and squeals. Lucky Thompson’s “Slam’s Mishap” is a nice guitar feature, Rogers employs a much mellower tone than he did in the previous tune, and Medeski responds with an old school organ sound, employing a classic sound that echoes the Jimmy Smith/Jack McDuff school. Also employed is a nice funky drum solo with McBride walking on acoustic bass. “Street of Dreams” has Carter teasing “Broadway” before moving into a ballad feel.

Despite his reputation as a honker, Carter’s true gift is for ballads, and he makes that plain here with a very thoughtful and patient solo. He slowly ramps up the intensity, building nicely with thick organ supporting him, culminating in a climax that references R&B and gospel. Adam Rogers takes a mild toned but interesting solo on “Infiniment” followed by Carter increasing the pace with dome deep fast tenor saxophone. “Blue Leo” by Leo Parker has Carter on the baritone appropriately enough digging into the deep blues. Rogers is the key here also, he takes a beautiful gutbucket blues solo that is very impressive.

The group takes things out on Larry Young’s “Heaven on Earth” which is played as a flat out uptempo jam. Carter wails on soprano saxophone and the rest of the band pitches in. This was an enjoyable and fun album of spontaneous and exciting music. Both the ensemble passages and the solo sections were consistently interesting and engaging. There is a danger in a jam session that egos may overrule teamwork, but that is not the case here and the result is a most agreeable disc.

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.