In the wake of the passing of Nick Webb, guitarist and founding member of contemporary jazz supergroup Acoustic Alchemy, an old adage of comfort comes clearly to mind: "Mourn not too long that he is gone, but rather, rejoice forever that he was." It is in that hopeful spirit that Webb's good friend and partner of 14 years, Greg Carmichael, presents Positive Thinking-not only as Webb's parting gift to his many fans, but also as a tribute to his grace, courage and commitment to his music in the face of the trying, final battle of his life against pancreatic cancer.
True to the title of the recording, Webb's liner notes refer to Positive Thinking as "a milestone for Greg and myself as it is our 10th collaboration together and takes us into our second decade as musical partners." Though the second part of that declaration was not to be, the album stands instead as the final legacy of one of the genre's most beloved performers, as well as an enduring document of one of contemporary music's most unique and creative partnerships.
For previous Acoustic Alchemy albums, they would rent a place near their primary flats in London to do all their writing. But this time, they sought the most comfortable environment possible. Realizing that with all the chemotherapy he would face, Webb might not always be full of his usual pep, the two left London for Webb's other home out in the country near Bath. "We spent most of 1997 there," Carmichael says. "The treatment was intense, and there were days when he couldn't do anything. Yet he never gave the impression that he was giving up or that anything was even wrong. There was never a question in his mind that he would beat it, and in fact, we were shocked in the end when he did not."
They spent the year writing the tunes which would become Positive Thinking, focusing as was their trademark so heavily on the work at hand (and "sparking off each other creatively") that it was often easy to forget about Webb's illness. Sadly, this past January, just as the time approached when they had planned to go into the studio and actually record tracks, Webb began his final turn for the worse. Shrugging it off the best they could, they rented a nearby manor house in Bath with a large downstairs, set on recording the material with their full support band despite the odds.
The musicians on Positive Thinking include electric guitarist Miles Gilderdale, bassist Dennis Murphy and drummer John Shepard. (The final album also includes keyboardist Rainer Bruninghaus, percussionist Mario Argandona and cellist Caroline Dale. Webb is credited for his "composition, arrangements and inspiration.")
It soon became clear however, that not only was Webb not up to playing the tunes that he had collaborated upon, but that he would soon have to go back to London for an extended hospital stay and treatment. Webb had previously asked John Parsons, who is also a great steel string player, to fill in; Parsons gladly stepped in, and thus it is his guitars we hear with Carmichael's in the forefront on Positive Thinking.
Webb spent the last weeks of his life as he had always lived-listening to and enjoying the music he was so skilled at creating. After recording in the country all week, Carmichael would take tapes back to London and play them for his partner. "He'd either approve or recommend certain changes, and his mood was always up," Carmichael recalls.
Among the highlights on Positive Thinking are the hypnotic, gently percussive "Passionelle" (whose rhythm scheme recalls their classic "Reference Point"); "Rainwatching W.I.", a thoughtful reflection on a rainy day in London; exotic elements on both the galloping flamenco flavored "Cadaques," the jungle soundcape intensive "Limited Excess" and the snappy reggae lilt of "The Five Card Trick"; '70's flavored funk fusion on "The Better Shoes"; and "Augustrasse 18," a multi-movement, spacey jam inspired by the spy movies of the 1960s. A bluesy, jazz oriented "Time Gentlemen Please," relates to the atmosphere in the jazz clubs of the world.
Nick Webb died in London on February 5, 1998, shortly before the main recording of the tracks was completed. Carmichael recalls of the funeral the next week: "It was an extraordinary day, in some ways. It was very hot for that time of year, and there were all these people paying tribute to my friend whom I had never even met. They played our music and everyone just listened. I realized that Nick touched a lot of people's lives."
Better yet for all the hundreds of thousands of Acoustic Alchemy fans who both mourn Webb's loss and celebrate his life, Carmichael is planning a U.S. summer tour, with John Parsons taking Webb's seat aside Carmichael. "Like everything else," Carmichael says, "this is the right thing to do, something both Nick would want and certainly what his fans would appreciate, to give them an opportunity to both hear his final work and share their love for him. The hardest thing for me will be looking over and not seeing him beside me."
Beyond the album and tour for Positive Thinking, the road ahead for Acoustic Alchemy is anybody's guess-the most likely option being a full-scale collaboration between Carmichael and Parsons, from the writing to recording. In the early 1980s, Nick Webb began the band with Simon James, and now, fate and circumstance has found him handing the legacy over to Carmichael.
Acoustic Alchemy has a rich legacy based on the extraordinary airplay, sales and critical reception given the many Webb-Carmichael recordings over the years. Their tale began when the duo provided the one-off-in-flight entertainment for a Virgin Airlines England to America flight, in search of an elusive recording contract; they've often liked to say they "played their way to America." Signed to the MCA Master Series label by Tony Brown, their popularity took off in conjunction with the New Adult Contemporary radio format.
Their early MCA albums-starting in 1987 with Red Dust and Spanish Lace and continuing with 1988's Natural Elements and 1989's Blue Chip-have all been rereleased on GRP. Their GRP catalog features Reference Point, Back on the Case, Early Alchemy, The New Edge, Against the Grain and the live in the studio Arcanum, which featured new arrangements of classics, a few new tracks, and full orchestration. Recorded over three days at Pinewood Film Studios in England (home to all the James Bond films), the sessions were filmed by director Aubrey Powell for a television documentary of the band, to be released by GRP on video under the title Best Kept Secret.
"Sometimes, it's all hard to believe that he died earlier than later," says Carmichael. "I know I'll always love Nick, for the 14 years of good times we shared and for all the inspiration he will give me as my life here goes on. That's the best tribute I can think of to someone who through it all, just kept going...keeping it going myself."