Acoustic Alchemy was one of the more popular adult contemporary duos to fall under the tag "smooth jazz," consistently topping the relevant charts and producing a steady, competent stream of music that played off of the differing styles of the group's two guitarists and principal songwriters--jazz steel-string guitarist Nick Webb and nylon-string classicist Greg Carmichael. Along the way the group absorbed many influences from both camps, settling into a world-music/new-age influenced kind of smooth jazz that is endlessly appealing, relaxing, and fiery while never ever becoming anything like intrusive, unless of course you wish it to be. Far from the Kenny G school of aping the greats but producing little of musical value or competency, the sound of Acoustic Alchemy has been traditionally met with acclaim from all sides.
On this 1998 release, unfortunately, the core duo was one member short as Carmichael had succumbed to pancreatic cancer just as recording was set to begin. On this album Webb collaborated with longtime sideman John Parsons in place of Carmichael, and luckily the performances they conjure are remarkably good. Opener "Passionelle" works around a percussive acoustic figure with the prerequisite fretless bass wanderings in the lower register. Parsons works in some very subtle and pleasant electric guitar in the chorus, which is remarkable for its uplifting beauty: the nylon-string melody here is especially notable for its motific development, and the odd tonality shift here and there. "Rain Watching V.I." opts for subtle elements of Latin and bossa rhythms and lilting, mournful chord work. "Cadaqués" is notable for the increase in energy towards the middle, resembling vaguely a kind of flamenco/Arabian texture, while for the most part remaining calm and contained--the solo is especially nice here. "The Five Card Trick" combines Hedges-style tapping and harmonics with some light reggae and bluesy stylings, but again--just barely touching on these styles and staying firmly within the lushly produced and relaxing feel of the music.
Other highlights include the title track, a two-guitar duet with great, lowkey folky interplay and a weeping cello solo near the middle, a light funk workout with "The Better Shoes," replete with awesome fretless bass and terrifically toney acoustic work, the much jazzier "Time Gentlemen Please" (actually among the only songs here that retains any jazz feel at all), and the interesting but very peculiar "Limited Excess."
This album is probably notable because it doesn't in any way demand or even neccesarily attract attention while it's on, because the compositions have been so pleasantly arranged dynamically that while there is often a remarkable level of instrumental activity going on, everything is clear and in its spot. Ultimately, the fact is that this is a stellar adult contemporary record and that there's not much strikingly innovative about this music--yet should you choose to pay it close attention, you may find a truly delightful array of instrumental textures that any musician would do well to learn from, especially with regard to the steel and nylon-string acoustics, which are always bursting with fabulous tones and dynamic control. Great album to do your homework to, and to learn from for all you acoustic artists.