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Jazz Alchemists

Acoustic Alchemy was soft jazz before soft jazz was soft?

For a decade Acoustic Alchemy defined the New Adult Contemporary radio format. Often called The Wave and now usually referred to as "smoooooth jazz," NAC debuted in 1987 and originally featured a mix of light contemporary jazz, upbeat New Age and some pop/jazz vocal sounds. Pop-contempo jazz artists such as David Sanborn and Bob James were heard right alongside such outright pop/rock stars as Sting and Joni Mitchell. Though NAC stations were lambasted by jazz purists, no one could deny that those stations were fresh and adventurous.

When Acoustic Alchemy released its first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace, in early 1987, the timing was perfect. Fronted by two acoustic guitarists, nylon-stringer Greg Charmichael and the late steel-stringer Nick Webb (with various backup players), Acoustic Alchemy mixed pop hooks with Spanish guitar influences, subtle electronic backgrounds and light jazz to become what every NAC station was looking for. NAC stations typically added not one or two tracks from the album, but often every single one (even the eight-minute flamenco-styled title song). Not bad for a band that one year before was struggling to get noticed in London nightclubs.

Acoustic Alchemy's growth into one of contemporary jazz's hottest acts is full of odd, almost fateful coincidences, beginning with Charmichael's training. He had played steel strings since he was 12 but switched to nylon strings at the College of Music in London, where he was on full scholarship, because he was forced to. He has been a nylon-string player ever since.

In 1984, while gigging around London with his band the Holloways and playing in several others just to make a living, Charmichael was introduced to steel-string guitarist Webb, who had formed an early version of Acoustic Alchemy in 1979 with a friend of Charmichael's, guitarist Simon James. Webb and Charmichael got together. Webb's folk influences with Charmichael's flamenco and jazz leanings made for a curious mix.

After playing around London until 1986, the duo, with demo tapes in hand, visited five major cities in the United States, compliments of a Virgin Airlines ad calling for in-flight entertainers. (They played on board for free tickets.) The duo hoped it would land a record contract before returning to England. While in Nashville, Charmichael played a demo for a musician friend. The friend immediately sensed the music's appeal and put the band in contact with Tony Brown and the MCA Master Series label, a folkie, jazzy company that was trying to capitalize on the New Age trend started by the Windham Hill label a couple years earlier.

Red Dust and Spanish Lace became the most successful album on the short-lived MCA Master Series. By mid-1987 Acoustic Alchemy was a contemporary jazz phenomenon, though the band didn't hear or see its popularity change much back in England. At the same time, the duo also wasn't aware of its success in the States.

In 1988 the band released the follow-up album, Natural Elements, and toured the United States for the first time. "Our first U.S. gig was in Dallas," Charmichael says. "We were just overcome. We were onstage and started playing 'Ricochet,' and people started clapping. They knew the songs, whereas a year or so earlier, we'd been sitting in London playing the stuff and people were eating their dinner and talking over it."

Acoustic Alchemy's success in the United States was continuing throughout the 1990s, but just as the group was starting to record its tenth album, Positive Thinking, its decade of continuous success came to a halt. Webb died of pancreatic cancer. Since he was the brainchild behind the original Acoustic Alchemy and had been Charmichael's musical partner for 14 years, going on without him seemed unlikely, if not impossible. Despite that, Charmichael kept Acoustic Alchemy alive. "There was not a question that I wasn't going to finish Positive Thinking," Charmichael says, "because I wanted to, and Nick would have been absolutely livid had I not."

Charmichael brought in guitarist John Parsons, who produced the first four Acoustic Alchemy albums and had co-written a number of songs for the group, to play Webb's guitar parts on the record. A versatile studio musician with solid chops, Parsons easily fit into the band. It is now in the middle of its third tour with Parsons sitting in what was once Webb's chair. "The music, the tunes keep it alive," says Charmichael. "I think that's kind of what happened. People have been very positive. Their reaction is, 'Please don't stop, please keep it going.' So that's what we're doing."

Recently Acoustic Alchemy found itself a victim of the Universal/Polygram merger when the group was dropped by GRP. The band is negotiating with several record labels but recognizes it may have to adapt to the changing nature of NAC radio, which has evolved -- or devolved, depending on your perspective -- into the smooth jazz format. If Acoustic Alchemy wants to be played on a smooth jazz station today, it has to have a "hit."

"There's a point when you're halfway through your career and you think nothing is ever going to change," says Charmichael. "But things do change. That's the way smooth jazz has gone. They want that one cut from the record that's got that flavor to it so that they can get some airplay on it. It's become so kind of corporate since we started, quite different. But that is the way it has gone, so there is no point in fighting it. I think we can do something positive with it. We will obviously have to be creative because there's little point in doing music unless you really believe in it. But you have to work within the new framework."

Acoustic Alchemy performs Sunday, June 13, at Scott Gertner's Skybar, 3400 Montrose Boulevard, tenth floor. Call (713)520-9688 for more information.

 
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