May 17, 2005

Acoustic Alchemy - American English

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul. American English is the brand new release from the UK based Acoustic Alchemy and when I recently talked to founder member Greg Carmichael about the album and the up coming tour, the conversion inevitably came around to how something as American as smooth jazz has benefited so immeasurably by something as English as Acoustic Alchemy.

That many fans in the USA are surprised when they first discover the band is in fact English is an indication of the place they have cemented for themselves within the smooth jazz culture of that country yet it was pure chance and an advertisement in the London Evening Standard that first took the band across the Atlantic and into the musical adventure that continues to this day. What started out as simply providing in flight music for Virgins trans-Atlantic journeys quickly led to Nashville just when the record companies there were looking to diversify their output and shake off their image of being exclusively ‘Country’. With their music identified first as ‘new age’ and then later as ‘adult contemporary’ (the term smooth jazz not having been thought of at the time) they signed for MCA and recorded their debut album with them, Red Dust And Spanish Lace, in 1987.

The hallmark steel string nylon string guitar combination of AA has been around now for fifteen albums and eighteen years yet, over this time, although that signature sound has remained, the music has continued to evolve in different, sometimes unexpected, but always delightful directions. This has been due, in part, to changes in personnel, the most significant of which resulted from the sad death of co-founder Nick Webb in 1998, but also through the writing partnership that Carmichael has struck up with steel string player Miles Gilderdale.

All fourteen of the tracks on American English are Carmichael Gilderdale collaborations, a process that Carmichael explains as each of them developing ideas alone before coming together to select the best from what they have and then combining to hone each one into a finished product. If the collection that is American English is anything to go by this is a winning formula as the standard is incredibly high throughout without even a hint of a weak or ‘filler’ track.

The record company has already selected ‘Say Yeah’, a tune with obvious dance and R & B origins, as the first single for radio play. At its end Gilderdale provides some scat singing of which George Benson would be proud but, perhaps, even more infectious is ‘The Crossing’. This simply constructed sax and flute hook, overlaid with a beautiful Carmichael melody, is a tune that is hard to get out of your head. Talking about tunes that are hard to forget ‘So Kylie’ is also right up there. For readers outside of the UK and Australia, Kylie Minogue was, and possibly still is, the hottest property to come out of the renowned UK based pop-dance music production ‘hit factory’ Stock, Aitkin and Waterman. The sound generated here in tribute to her is pure Kylie. Great fun and great to listen to.

Twelve of the fourteen tracks that comprise American English were recorded in London, England with production provided by Richard Bull. Significantly, ‘The 14 Carrot Café’ and ‘Cherry Hill’ were recorded and produced in Bonn, Germany in the same studio where many of AA’s earlier offerings were made. True aficionados of the steel and nylon sound that, to many, defines Acoustic Alchemy will agree with Carmichael when he explains it as no coincidence that these two tunes, epitomizing as they do the pure melodic AA vibe, should have originated from this particular studio. He sums it up nicely when he simply says, ‘its just something about the place’.

When the band hit the road later this month, for what will be a thirty-four city forty six night tour, only five of those dates will be played outside of the USA. Carmichael accepts that smooth jazz in the UK will always be on the fringe, a place where a glimpse of a billboard advertising an up and coming AA gig remains a novelty. Yet he finds the passion and knowledge of the audiences to whom the band play, whether in the UK or the USA, to be constantly high wherever they go. For him, the experience of live performing continues to thrill and, although his opinion is that the best place to hear Acoustic Alchemy is in a theater where sound quality is good, he enjoys live performances everywhere and cites a particular appeal for those Californian summer festivals where warm sunshine, fine wine and excellent food combine with the music to make every event a special occasion.

Wherever their fans are able to see the band perform this year they will find that the depth that American English has added to Acoustic Alchemy’s catalogue of music is sure to enthrall. Whether it be the reggae flavored ‘Trinity’, the downright funky ‘Get Up’ or the ‘Moon And The Sun’ which somehow combines the feeling of Ibiza with the sea breeze of the Californian Coast Highway, the variety, linked by the common thread of quality, is unsurpassed. Carmichael and Gilderdale even find time to pay their own homage to Motown with a tune the idea for which was hatched on the tour bus while watching a documentary about the session band The Funk Brothers. ‘The Detroit Shuffle’ captures the mood perfectly and is enhanced by a superb tenor sax solo from none other than Paul Hardcastle sideman Snake Davies; back performing on an Acoustic Album CD for the first time since the 2001 AArt.

American English is sure to be up there as one of the smooth jazz albums of 2005. Go out and buy it, see the band perform but, above all, enjoy.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this edition of the Secret Garden? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at May 17, 2005 3:25 AM