Acoustic Alchemy has a lot to celebrate this year as they release their latest CD This Way, starting with a new association with the legendary Blue Note jazz label. Greg Carmichael, Miles Gilderdale and friends can thank corporate merging for their latest coup. Their longtime label Higher Octave was absorbed by Narada, and now Narada Jazz has been taken over by Blue Note. Just as significantly, the band is celebrating a remarkable two decades since 1987’s Red Dust and Spanish Lace established Carmichael and his original partner, the late Nick Webb, as one of contemporary jazz’s early superstar acts. Webb’s passing in 1998 led to the band’s second era, with Carmichael and Gilderdale carrying on the acoustic guitar based tradition and expanding its rock, soul and jazz elements.
The coolest part of the post-millennial AA is that each of their five releases has had a different overall vibe. On This Way, they follow the cool, laid back pop-soul flavored American/English (2005) with a collection that is easily their most hard rocking, soulfully swinging and playfully jazzy to date. Beyond the two principals, the core band is made up of longtime Acoustic Alchemy associates like Terry Disley (piano), Snake Davis (sax), Fred White (keyboards and trumpet), Julian Crampton (bass) and Greg Grainger (drums). There are also colorful guest appearances by saxman Jeff Kashiwa (who once toured regularly with them and still does occasional live dates), trumpeter Rick Braun and keyboardist Neil Cowley from AA labelmates Down To The Bone.
While featuring more of the killer melodies and grooves AA is famous for, This Way has a lot more playing and more extended solos than ever before. It’s kind of a full circle effect for a band that was once categorized as “new age”—now they’re a full on jazz attack! But with a lot of rock electricity, thanks to Gilderdale, who was a rock guitarist long before he and Carmichael were ever partners.
The first track “Love Is All There Is” picks up right where American/English left off, kind of cool and mellow and old school, with a mix of Gilderdale’s wordless vocals and electric guitar with easy horns and a trippy synth sitar; Davis’ fiery sax solo is a powerful complement. Longtime AA fans who remember their 1991 reggae flavored hit “Jamaica Heartbeat” will dig the cool Latin Jazz exotica of “Ernie,” which is dedicated to Gilderdale’s musical hero, Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin. “Who Knows” is a brassy, mid-tempo romp that opens the floodgates to the wilder energy that defines much of the rest of the disc. The insanely grooving blowout tune “Slampop” features Carmichael’s jangling acoustic melody with Gilderdale’s electric fire. Most of the tracks on This Way are busy, with a full band approach, but in the midst of the madness, “Out of Nowhere” and the title track are sensual, sparsely arranged duo numbers. Remember the name Bert Smaak, because his “smacking” high hat intensity is all over the intensely percussive jam tune “Tied Up With String.”
Speaking of hip, “Only In My Dreams” is very “today,” mixing a crisp hip-hop groove with a warm and familiar old school funk vibe and some more sitar. It’s not hard to guess the guitar icon who inspired the bluesy, loping Latin rocker “Carlos The King,” which is punctuated perfectly by Rick Braun’s flugelhorn solo; it’s Santana, but this cut is anything but “smooth.” The final two cuts are old school fusion all the way, starting with the hot, blues-rock-jazz energy of “Egg” (check out the way the AA guitars work with Davis’ baritone and Cowley’s crazy organ!). Cowley’s Wurlitzer solo is a highlight of the moody, shuffle rhythm closer “Now I’m On My Way,” a title which offers great promise for the future of Acoustic Alchemy. This Way is hands down one of the best contemporary jazz discs of the year; labeling it just “smooth jazz” limits it to boundaries that just aren’t there this time!
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