Two for Tuesday: Acoustic Alchemy

I can’t believe that I haven’t featured this band before now. By far, this is my favorite smooth jazz group. I could do a whole year just on them.

The concept behind Acoustic Alchemy was the blending of musical styles, including jazz, reggae, funk, Chinese, classical and flamenco, as well as the blending of Nick Webb’s steel-string guitar and Simon James’ nylon-string. They started in 1981 at a time when there wasn’t much demand in the UK (their home) for the sort of music they were doing. They recorded a couple of albums that didn’t sell well, and split in the mid-1980s. Simon James would go on to form the band Kymaera in the early Nineties.

Nick Webb met nylon-string player Greg Carmichael in 1985, and Acoustic Alchemy was reborn. One of their first gigs was as in-flight entertainment between the UK and the US on Virgin Airlines. They sent some demo material to MCA Records, who called them a few weeks later to record. That first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace, was released in 1987 and was an immediate success, and over the next two years they released two more albums, Natural Elements (1988) and Blue Chip (1989).

MCA bought GRP Records in February 1990. By that time, GRP was a huge smooth jazz label with artists such as Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and Dave Grusin, and Acoustic Alchemy was moved to that label for their fourth album, Reference Point, released later that year. 1991 featured the release of Back on the Case, which added country to their particular blend of styles. Webb discovered fourteen tracks that he had recorded with Simon James which formed the basis for 1992’s Early Alchemy. Their next two albums, 1993’s Against the Grain and 1994’s The New Edge, featured edgier tunes and a general harder edge to their playing.

In 1996, the group released the album Arcanum. It featured a couple of new tunes, but most of the album consisted of new recordings of old favorites. It was around this time that Nick Webb was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His last album with the band was 1998’s Positive Thinking…, and he was spelled for much of the album by longtime associate John Parsons. Nick died on February 5, 1998.

Greg Carmichael decided to keep the band going, and employed Miles Gilderdale, a sideman on several albums, as the new steel-string player. They made other changes as well, including a new label (Higher Octave) and new musical influences. The albums released since Webb’s death include The Beautiful Game (2000), AArt (2001), Radio Contact (2003), American/English (2005), and This Way (2007). Their latest album is 2011’s Roseland, and they’re currently on tour.

Again, limiting myself to just two tunes by the band was difficult, but I managed to pick a couple. The first is the title track from Roseland, their latest album which shows where they are today as a group. The second is “Casino,” a song originally recorded with Simon James, then re-released on Natural Elements and again on Arcanum. Every time I saw them live, this was the tune that they started the show with.

Acoustic Alchemy is one of the few bands that I can honestly say that I haven’t tired of, even after 26 years and sixteen albums. They always find a way to keep their music fresh and interesting. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music of Acoustic Alchemy, you Two for Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

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