Acoustic Alchemy has never accepted a place in one genre. The boundary-pushing instrumental group has been challenging audiences for nearly four decades with its blend of jazz, classical, flamenco and other world music, rock and New Age. The group has received three Grammy nominations and also has developed a reputation as one of the most exciting live bands around. Their mission? Reaching the broadest audience by taking the potential of instrumental music as far as they can.
For the last decade or so, the band lineup has been made up of Greg Carmichael in nylon guitar, Miles Gilderdale on steel-string acoustic and electric guitars, Fred White on keyboards and a powerful rhythm section featuring Greg Grainger on drums and his brother, Gary, on bass.
Acoustic Alchemy began in London in 1981 by guitarist Nick Webb and nylon guitarist Simon James. Webb had studied jazz at Leeds College of Music in England. When the two parted ways, Webb joined with Greg Carmichael, a classically trained guitarist, and the duo found work with Virgin Airlines, providing in-flight music on trans-Atlantic flights. They sent a demo to MCA and six weeks later were signed to a contract. Their first album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace was released in 1987 and they went on to release several more albums with MCA. In 1990, the duo signed with jazz label GRP and the album, Reference Point, earned them their first Grammy nod for Best New Age Performance for the track “Caravan of Dreams.” Five more albums followed, including 1996’s Arcanum, which garnered an Grammy nod for Best New Age Performance.
Webb died in 1998 and Carmichael revamped the band, bringing in Gilderdale and White. Their album Art was released in 2001 and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. In 2011, the band celebrated its 30th anniversary with Roseland, which reached No. 6 on the jazz albums chart, and 2018’s 33 1/3 cracked the Top Ten of Billboards’ Jazz albums chart. It was their first album in some time and is part of their belief that you only write an album when you have something to say. In addition, Greg’s wife, Jan, was seriously ill and he spent most of his time helping her recover. With the help of guitarists Steve Oliver and Nate Najar, the band continued touring, with Greg flying in when he could. “I couldn’t believe how great they were,” he said. “I’m not sure I could do that, just take a whole set of songs and learn someone else’s parts and go and play it so incredibly well. I’m really grateful to them and Jan’s incredible strength and determination have been such an inspiration. And that’s what made me want to get back to writing.”
The album touches on a variety of genres, as Acoustic Alchemy always has. There’s jazz, blues, some Caribbean sounds that are familiar to long-time listeners, some Eastern music and classical, a reminder of Greg’s days at the London College of Music a long time ago. It is a new album, but it is also classic Acoustic Alchemy. “The band has changed a lot over the years, different personnel, different eras, different influences, but we always somehow make it sound like Acoustic Alchemy,” he said. “I think every band tries to do that, to make something that’s new and interesting. But the fans still hear it and go, ‘that’s them!’”
Throughout its creative life, the band has defied categorization. In an interview, Carmichael described why the name Acoustic Alchemy fit the band. “It’s a good name,” he said. “It says we’re acoustic, although we’re not strictly now because you couldn’t be heard. In essence, though, the identity is two acoustic guitars. Acoustic Alchemy is not about a person, it’s about a band. Alchemy means a blend, a combination of lots of different styles. Alchemy suits us. It implies a magical blend.”
For more than three decades, the band has been at the forefront of contemporary jazz, even if its signature eclectic mix of styles has meant that the group never fit snugly into one genre. “We’ve had a lot of labels over the years, but we’ve never really thought about ourselves as being in any one particular genre,” Greg Carmichael said. “We just make music we like. At the core, it’s always been a simple concept: the sound of the nylon and steel guitars working together. That leaves a lot of scope for exploring all sorts of musical ideas.”
This “G Force” of Greg Carmichael, Gilderdale, Grainger (and White) has been defying gravity and labeling for years. Come along for the ride.