When Alchemy Sound Project initially came together, their mission seemed as elusive as the medieval mystics that inspired their name: after all, combining five distinctive composers, separated by miles and even continents, each melding jazz, classical and world music influences in their own unique ways, into a single ensemble that also played to their individual gifts as performers and improvisers - well, that all starts to make turning lead into gold seem like child's play.
Despite those challenges, Alchemy's debut Further Explorations (the title suggesting that they were already looking forward, even their first time out), made an impressive impact, earning widespread critical acclaim and earning the band a place on DownBeat Magazine's Best Albums of 2016 list. Many a collective ensemble has managed one great album before disbanding; the proof is in the longevity. Now, Alchemy returns with their second outing Adventures in Time and Space - due out June 15, 2018 via Artists Recording Collective - and the results are even more compelling this time around.
"We're committed to each other," says pianist Sumi Tonooka who originally masterminded the project. The five core members of Alchemy Sound Project were initially brought together by the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a program of the American Composers Orchestra and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University that encourages jazz composers to explore writing music for symphony orchestra. Saxophonist Erica Lindsay attended the first JCOI session in 2010; at her encouragement, both Tonooka (a frequent collaborator) and trumpet player Samantha Boshnack (a former student of Lindsay's at Bard College) enrolled in the second round in 2012. There, Tonooka and Boshnack met and bonded with bassist David Arend and multi-reedist Salim Washington. For this release, the band is supplemented by trombonist Michael Spearman and drummer Johnathan Blake.
"We all wanted to write in a way that helps each other grow as composers but also provides a platform for us to experiment," Tonooka says. "It's a community of sorts, a support system that allows us to have our music heard within a certain context. We write for each other, we learn from each other, we're all growing in our own ways and it's coming out in the music."
Forming Alchemy Sound Project provided a means to hone the members' composing chops with an encouraging, supportive and skilled ensemble. But all five have also broadened their musical horizons in other ways as well. Most remarkably, at a time when orchestras across the country are under scrutiny for the dearth of female composers represented in their repertoires, the ensemble boasts three female composers who've had their innovative work performed by major orchestras.
Tonooka served as composer-in-residence for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and was commissioned by Seattle's Northwest Symphony Orchestra to write her piece "For Malala," an homage to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history. Lindsay's piece for drum set and orchestra, "Mantra," was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, while another orchestral composition, "Inner Dialogue," was read by the American Composers Orchestra. Boshnack's piece "Coelacanth: In Its Own Time," was premiered by the Northwest Symphony Orchestra in 2015.
That's not to discount the guys, who have also been making waves as composers. Arend is currently working on an orchestral commission for the Bellingham Festival of Music's 2019 season and recorded two concertos featuring himself and Washington with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Based in Durban, South Africa, where he teaches at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Washington recently received a commission from the Jazz Foundation to arrange big band charts of his music as well as the music of South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.
"We've all broadened our experience," Tonooka says. "Everyone in this band is really unique, and when we come together it creates a very interesting picture."
The title Adventures in Time and Space offers a broad explanation for why that picture is developing in such a vivid fashion. The six pieces on the album are just that - sonic adventures - but they're also born of the time these five composers have spent together and the travels and communions they've shared. "I think each of us as composers now are really starting to understand the range and the possibilities that each player, who is also a composer, offers," says Lindsay, who wrote the title tune. "That opens up our compositional scope and gives us a really rich palette to work from."
Lindsay's two contributions bookend the album, the transformational narrative of the title track providing an enticing opening, and the buoyant "Jeff's Joy," penned in tribute to drummer/bandleader Jeff Siegel, closing on a celebratory note. Arend's mysterious "Ankh" was inspired by early Egyptian alchemists. "The Ankh was a symbol of eternal life," Arend notes, "of life beyond this mortal life. The music's dreamy melody and subtle harmonic shifts are inspired by this symbol."
Boshnack's "Song of the Whistle Wing" draws on her childhood memories of growing up in rural New York. "I started the piece by trying to capture the nostalgia of the call of the mourning doves," she says. "I then incorporated the whistling sound their wings make during takeoff and landing." Tonooka's moving "Transition Waltz (for Matt)" was penned for her longtime friend Matt Yaple, a Philadelphia composer and presenter who'd recently left his longtime apartment for a new home that doubles as a performance space. "I've known Matt for more than 30 years and he's finally transitioning into this life that he's always wanted," Tonooka says. "So I thought I would write something for him to help celebrate our friendship and the fact that he's moving forward."
Washington's "Odysseus Leaves Circe" was originally intended to accompany an exhibition of Romare Bearden's paintings in Cape Town. While the show never happened, Washington had already immersed himself in the artist's work and this piece, as vibrant and multi-layered as Bearden's work, was the result. He says, "I loved the painting 'Odysseus Leaves Circe.' The color and composition haunted me. So I tried to write a composition that on the one hand gave voice to the painting and on the other referenced the story of Odysseus trying to free himself from the pull of Circe and her charms."
Alchemy Sound Project is a collective of composer-performers whose music combines elements of jazz, world music and modern chamber music. This diverse and eclectic group aims to blur the boundaries between notated composition and improvisation. The alchemy of these individual voices working together results in music that is powerful, original and highly interactive. Pianist Sumi Tonooka, saxophonist Erica Lindsay, trumpet player Samantha Boshnack, bassist David Arend and multi-reedist Salim Washington are all unique and forward-thinking composers traversing the borders between the composed and the improvised. Alchemy Sound Project is committed to synthesizing the individual voices and experiences of diverse composers into a musical experience that is fresh and new.