Acoustic Alchemy (Contemporary Musicians)
Having played adult contemporary, New Age, and smooth jazz to enthusiastic audiences in the United States since the mid-1980s, Acoustic Alchemy finally began to receive much-deserved chart success at home in England in 2000. Founding member Nick Webb, who died in 1998, did not live to see that level of success, but his longtime collaborator, Greg Carmichael, has managed to guide the group through its transformation, reinvigorating the music of Acoustic Alchemy while remaining true to its original sound.
The two acoustic guitars of Acoustic Alchemy are surrounded by bright, energetic melodies that often defy categorization. Fronted by Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale, and including Frank Felix on bass and Tony White on keyboards, Acoustic Alchemy has long been known to blend New Age, folk, jazz, reggae, and world music. Since Webb's death, the group has continued to draw on varied influences, with Gilderdale contributing his history of blues, rock, and brass while White exerts his techno background.
Acoustic Alchemy began in the 1980s when Webb joined forces with fellow guitarist and Leeds College of Music student Simon James. Although the pair gigged steadily throughout England and Europe, audiences in the United Kingdom were lukewarm on the smooth jazz genre, and the duo's self-produced album sold poorly. James eventually left the band. Webb then hooked up with Carmichael, and Acoustic Alchemy began to take off creatively and critically. Webb and Carmichael developed a highly successful collaborative approach to songwriting that continued throughout their partnership.
The pair would use a tape recorder to write melodies for Webb's steel guitar and Carmichael's nylon strings. From there, Acoustic Alchemy's songs were fleshed out by writing parts for the rest of the band around this core sound. Webb was careful not to limit their creative process. In an article at the Smooth Jazz Vibes website, Jonathan Widran relates a comment by Nick Webb: "Our real challenge each time out is to maintain a balance between approaching different, uncharted styles and making them work to form the musical whole which is Acoustic Alchemy. Our whole band concept is not to appeal only to guitar buffs."
Then came a significant and, to fans, nearly legendary event in Acoustic Alchemy's history: Webb and Carmichael got a gig playing live in-flight music on a Virgin Airlines flight between England and the United States. During a stay in Nashville, Acoustic Alchemy landed a record deal with the MCA Master series. In 1987 the group released the critically acclaimed EP Red Dust & Spanish Lace. MCA released two other CDs, Natural Elements and Blue Chip, before GRP bought Acoustic Alchemy's contract in 1990.
Under the GRP label, Webb and Carmichael began to assert their musical talent. Their second release on GRP, Reference Point, was nominated for a Grammy Award. The recording sessions for the CD Arcanum were filmed for a television documentary about the band titled Best Kept Secret; the documentary was released by GRP in 1998.
Acoustic Alchemy toured extensively in 1996 and then began recording Positive Thinking. During this time, Webb was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His dedication to his work was such that he continued recording between chemotherapy treatments, but he died before work on the CD was complete. With the production nearly finished, Carmichael was determined to go on with what the two had begun. He finished the CD with the band and asked John Parsons, a longtime supporting member, to take over for Webb on the tour. Although he was unsure about the future of Acoustic Alchemy without Webb, Carmichael eventually decided to carry on. "The fans gave us a lot of support," Carmichael told Brian Soergel in Smooth Jazz News. "I thought it was great and knew I wanted to keep Acoustic Alchemy alive." Gilderdale, who had been touring with Acoustic Alchemy since 1996 as a backing guitarist, officially became the second frontman in 1999.
In Webb's absence, Acoustic Alchemy underwent a dramatic change in its sound and approach to writing. Carmichael wanted to keep the group's distinctive sound while remaining open to new ideas and a renewed energy. On Beautiful Game, the group's first CD after Webb's death, Carmichael invited more input from the other band members. This method was a radical departure from the previous style of writing for the two guitars first and subsequently developing the rest of the parts.
On the Acoustic Alchemy official website, Carmichael stated, "Rather than having rigid ideas of what I wanted the new sound to be like, I felt very open to exploring new ideas, responding to the input of these other co-writers. I was open to what they might have to offer, including working with a computer alongside live musicians. The result is that while we can't possibly recapture the old band, you can still hear the signature sound of [Acoustic Alchemy] but with different and positive new influences."
On the next CD, AART, all parts were written concurrently. This approach made Acoustic Alchemy more prolific than ever, resulting in 14 tracks recorded for the album. For AART, Gilderdale and Carmichael further utilized elements of the latest technology. "Together we realized we could kick off a tune from numerous angles, melody, bassline, weird computer generated sound, whatever," Gilderdale told Widran in Smooth Jazz News. "Still, the two of us are fervently in favor of a great melody, and none of the technical ideas ever get in the way of that."
In addition to Gilderdale, Carmichael, Felix, and White, Acoustic Alchemy's collaborators on AART include the saxophonists Snake Davis and Andy Sheppard, keyboardists Simon Hale and Terry Disley, and producer Richard Bull, known for his work with Incognito, Basia, and Julia Fordham. The music has become less New Age than that of early Acoustic Alchemy, and the strong presence of Davis's saxophone inspired energetic live performances on tour. Gilderdale told Widran in Smooth Jazz News, "Snake's a fantastic player, and our music becomes even more exciting when he's blowing. We're always trying to make the show a little different, to fire off the energy of the other players."
Carmichael's decision to both continue Acoustic Alchemy's work and depart from it has paid off in critical response and support from their growing fan base. Beautiful Game made it to the top five on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart. AART was nominated for a Grammy Award, and both Carmichael and Gilderdale were honored with a Gibson Guitar Award for Best Jazz Guitarist. Critics and fans were pleasantly surprised by the high energy level and spontaneity of their live shows. In 2001 the online radio station JazzTrax named Acoustic Alchemy the JazzTrax Live Performance of the Year and gave AART the Album of the Year award. Gilderdale told Widran in Smooth Jazz News, "With all the transitions the band's made these past few years, it's exciting that we're still pulling these great crowds and carrying on beyond our wildest expectations."
Red Dust & Spanish Lace (EP), MCA, 1987.
Natural Elements, MCA, 1988.
Blue Chip, MCA, 1989.
Reference Point, GRP, 1991.
Back on the Case, GRP, 1991.
The New Edge, GRP, 1993.
Against the Grain, GRP, 1994.
Arcanum, GRP, 1996.
Positive Thinking, GRP, 1998.
The Beautiful Game, Higher Octave, 2000.
AART, Higher Octave, 2001.
Arizona Republic, June 28, 2001.
Billboard, June 3, 2000.
Blues and Soul, November 13-26, 2001.
East Valley Tribune, September 14, 2000.
Echoes, November 2001.
Freetime Magazine, September 19, 2001.
Jam, June 1-15, 2000.
Jazziz, June 2000.
Jazz Rag, December 2001.
L.A. Jazz Scene, September 2001.
New Age Retailer, September 2000.
Radio & Records, December 7, 2001.
Smooth Jazz News, September 2000; September 2001.
"Acoustic Alchemy," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 25, 2002).
Acoustic Alchemy Official Website, http://www.acoustic-alchemy.net (March 25, 2002).
"A Tribute to Nick Webb," Smooth Jazz Vibes, http://www.smoothvibes.com/nickwebb.html (March 27, 2002).
Additional material was provided by the Higher Octave publicity department, 2002.