The Beautiful Game
Higher Octave Music
Acoustic Alchemy's 1987 debut, Red Dust & Spanish Lace, and the debut of the new adult contemporary radio format in the same year sent the unknown English group to the top of the contemporary jazz charts. Fronted by acoustic guitarists Greg Carmichael and the late Nick Webb, AA composed instrumentals influenced more by the Beatles than by Django Reinhardt or Wes Montgomery. The players didn't attack the audience with challenging improvisations. Instead, they advanced an open, airy light-jazz sound that was a mixture of catchy melodies, Spanish guitar riffs and subtle electronic backgrounds. To say it became popular would be an understatement.
While AA's success helped define the NAC format, that same format has shifted away from New Age/acoustic hues and toward urban-influenced grooves. It's now called smooth jazz. Large corporations often run these stations, and songs don't get airplay unless they test well.
The Beautiful Game appears to be the result of a concerted effort by AA to adapt to the rules of the smooth-jazz marketplace while maintaining a sonic identity. Carmichael and John Parsons (an electric guitarist and longtime AA collaborator who got the call to fill Webb's vacant chair) buoy the album with AA's characteristically poppish hooks, but even when the guitarists incorporate urban grooves, they never sound contrived. In short, AA's take on smooth jazz is something else entirely.
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If one of the goals of The Beautiful Game was to score an all-important NAC "hit," then it succeeded with "Trail Blazer," a five-minute piece that illustrates AA's proficiency in penning hooks and paying attention to detail. The tune opens with a simple, catchy, repetitive figure that is introduced on piano and picked up by the bass. The guitarists then play a sweet Southern rock/country-influenced melody; the chorus involves a tasty exchange between the guitarists with solo sections straight outta the '70s.
While the expertly arranged "Trail Blazer" is the high point, AA generally hits the mark with other songs as well; the guitarists combine disparate genres to great effect, sometimes adding a stylistic element for just a few bars to get their point across. "The Panama Cat" boasts a light-funk background against which the double-headed guitar threat of Carmichael and Parsons picks an easy melody with bluesy bends and embellishments. It's almost an homage to Earl Klugh. "Angel of the South" is a successful mixture of folk, smooth jazz and almost ambient backgrounds, while "Tete a Tete" has an urban attitude, New Age guitar backgrounds and, of course, a memorable melody.
Since their material is instrumental, the guys in Acoustic Alchemy are often overlooked as songwriters. That's an injustice. AA writes some of the best melodies in popular music today. "The Last Flamenco" is a Spanish-guitar piece that derives its tension and drama from the deft arrangement of its many elements. Then there is the pop-funk "Kidstuff," which is just an R&B piece with horns that could have been lifted from the George Benson songbook -- and that's not a knock.
Blending superior melodies with fresh influences, Acoustic Alchemy sounds both new and familiar.