Heaven on Earth finds saxophonist James Carter performing live at the Blue Note Club in N.Y.C. in May of 2009. Backed by a select small group of musicians including organist John Medeski, bassist Christian McBride, guitarist Adam Rogers, and drummer Joey Baron, Carter runs through a short list of standards and lesser-known covers. In contrast to his generally swinging, straight-ahead 2008 studio release Present Tense, Heaven on Earth features Carter's idiosyncratic penchant for mixing old-school bop blowing and avant-garde skronk with a bit more greasy funk this time around per the inclusion of Medeski. In that sense, what at first may appear as yet another average live album reveals itself to be a much more interesting proposition. From the start, Carter is at his iconoclastic best reworking Django Reinhardt's "Diminishing" into less of a gypsy-jazz jam and more of a fractured and propulsive fusion-oriented work-out. He then wrangles Lucky Thompson's "Slam's Mishap" into a thumping and soulful roil bringing his own solo to a head with a series of bluesy goose-strangling squeals. That Rogers follows up with an urbane Kenny Burrell-inflected turn is a welcome rub. Never one to shy away from grand drama, Carter goes for the gusto midway through with a florid and voluptuous take on the ballad "Street of Dreams" that ends in bright audience claps and shouts of approval. In fact, the crowd seems to really dig the music and it's nice to actually hear how enthusiastic they are throughout out the album. They are particularly audible during Carter's gut-bucket rendition of the Ike Quebec/Leo Parker blues "Blue Leo" which showcases the extroverted saxophonist's flair for avant-garde split-tones and layered multi-phonic techniques that never lose sight of the earthy intentions of the tune. More than just a live date, Heaven on Earth is a knotty, adventurous document that allows for as much group interplay as it does for spotlighting Carter's long-recognized virtuosity.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar