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The Alchemists | Potions

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Jazz: Free Jazz Avant Garde: Free Improvisation Moods: Instrumental
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by The Alchemists

A spicy concoction of improvised, melodic, inventively original songs that weave together jazz, ballads, Latin rhythms, Indian beats and other far-flung genres into an eclectic whole. The alchemical lab is open: potions for sale. A CD Baby Editors' Pick.
Genre: Jazz: Free Jazz
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  Song Share Time Download
1. The Alchemists Are Summoned to Prague
3:01 $0.99
2. Gifts Are Exchanged With Visitors from the East
7:38 $0.99
3. Transmutations 1
2:14 $0.99
4. Samba for Hermes Trismegistus
4:29 $0.99
5. A Conversation With Whales and Dolphins
2:36 $0.99
6. Were the Ingredients Mixed Properly?
5:09 $0.99
7. Transmutations 2
1:55 $0.99
8. Djinn and Tonic
4:49 $0.99
9. John Dee Is Late for an Experiment
1:22 $0.99
10. Searching for the Elixir of Life
5:40 $0.99
11. Transmutations 3
2:30 $0.99
12. Albert Magnus Steps Out of the Lab to Watch a Parade Go By
3:04 $0.99
13. Rudolph II Is Not Pleased With the Results of His Funding
2:23 $0.99
14. An Ancient Manuscript Is Opened
6:06 $0.99
15. Transmutations 4
2:43 $0.99
16. The Philosopher's Stone
2:59 $0.99
17. The Alchemists Bid Farewell Till Next Year in London
4:47 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Click “Read more…” for information about the album, the basis of our improvised music and The Unfolding Tale, an alchemical alternative history devised as linked track narratives to frame the album.


POTIONS, a CD Baby Editors’ Pick, is the debut CD by The Alchemists, a Boston-based band of free form, genre-crossing jazz musicians devoted to the art of collective improvisation. Sometimes their work transcends the boundaries of traditional musical forms, as instruments weave outbursts of sound around each other in inventive, multilayered textures. At other times, unexpected lines of melodic, even danceable, tunes spontaneously emerge.

Follow The Alchemists at Facebook: facebook.com/thealchemistsbostonband

The Alchemists on YouTube features videos from our CD Release Party for Potions: youtube.com/thealchemists


The group inadvertently got its start with an invitation by Chris Gill to diverse musicians he knew to perform in Somerville, Mass, at an art-music improvisation event and art opening of Chris’ paintings that he called The Alchemists Ball. We had never all played together before and yet, the ensuing chemical reaction transformed us into - The Alchemists.


Tom Hall - Tenor Saxophone

Instructor at Brandeis University, where he founded the Brandeis Improv Collective Ensemble; Tom tours widely and has appeared on over 30 CDs; he is author of "Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide” and the host and creator of ImprovLive 365.

Jerry Leake - Percussion

Associate Professor of Percussion at Berklee College of Music and faculty member at the New England Conservatory; Jerry is a founding member of the world-music ensemble Natraj and Club d’Elf; he authored eight widely used texts on North and South Indian, West African, Latin American percussion, and rhythm theory.

Dennis Livingston - Flute, Sopranino and Alto Recorders

As a composer/lyricist of cabaret and jazz songs, Dennis’ work has appeared in four ASCAP-MAC Songwriter Showcases in New York, while revues of his songs have been presented in Boston, Washington, DC, and New York. Dennis has also been an improvising jazz flutist for many years, joining musicians by invitation or chance who gather to jam and jive.

Bob Nieske - Bass

Professor of the Practice in Jazz at Brandeis University and on the faculty of New England Conservatory; Bob’s compositions have been performed around the world by his own groups, The Either Orchestra, Matt Wilson and Jimmy Giuffre 4; he has performed with Charlie Byrd, Eartha Kitt, Dakota Stayton, John Blake, Richie Cole and Larry Coryell and recorded with Alan Dawson, Dave Grisman, Stephane Grappelli and George Russell, among others.

Randy Roos - Guitar

Associate Professor of Guitar and Music Systems at Berklee College of Music, following 14 years in the New England Conservatory jazz department, he has participated in many recordings from Photogenic Memory (Agharta, Japan), George Jinda and World News (JVC) and the Narada label, among others and has composed music for hundreds of television shows, including programs from Scientific American Frontiers and the PBS NOVA series.

Recorded, mixed & mastered by Randy Roos at Squam Sound, Ashland, NH
Graphic Design by John Colan
Artwork by Chris Gill
Produced and liner notes written by Dennis Livingston


How does this kind of music happen? By careful listening to each other, quick glances from one musician to another, body language, paying attention to when it feels appropriate to join the music making, play a solo or drop back for a time. To ensure variety, we sometimes began with a certain beat or particular instruments - or no rules at all - always letting the music go where it wanted to go.

For example, guitarist and studio engineer Randy Roos started the session by turning on his equipment and calling for a sound check - thereby capturing the spontaneous jumping back and forth among us that felt just right for Track 1. Dennis Livingston on flute and Tom Hall, tenor sax, played a slow duet with each other to initiate another track; percussionist Jerry Leake came in with a subtle Indian beat beneath them, Dennis and Tom dropped out, Randy entered with a simple, repeated guitar riff that pushed the music up in tempo, Dennis returned with some counterpoint and the piece turned into what could be a parade wending its way into the distance - the future Track 12. Looking for a different sound, Dennis picked up an alto recorder, noodled around alone with a tune that suggested a touch of the East, Randy came in with a mysterious chord, Jerry added a light tinkling of cymbals, Tom joined us with a quiet beat and there we were, traveling the Silk Road to the next caravanserai in Turkey - until the music sped up to take another route; this became Track 2. Let’s try a different rhythm - how about a samba? Jerry immediately set the beat, Bob Nieske entered with some bass riffs and off we went in a traditional pattern, but still unplanned in expression. Hey guys, we need something that’s no holds barred, more anarchistic; boom, an angry discussion for Track 13. So it goes.


The album was recorded with no preconceived idea of whether or how the tracks might cohere as anything more than a collection of improvised songs. After the recording, the producer gave titles to the tracks that resonated with the music and the name the band had adopted, then devised a song order that made musical sense.

At that point, the notion emerged to devise a series of vignettes tying together each track into a tale set in some alternative history centered around Rudolph II - Holy Roman Emperor and sometime Hapsburg King of Bavaria and Hungary - a historical monarch who had a long interest in alchemy.

Suppose in some alternative history he summoned a group of renowned alchemists, some alive at the time, some who should have been dead, to a secret conclave in late 16th century Prague, which he had made his capital, to concoct experiments of great interest. He also dragged in a local band to accompany the sometimes raucous, sometimes contemplative goings-on. Four hundred years later, you get to hear the results.

The Unfolding Tale, which includes brief sketches of people and things referenced in titles, follows below.

Duly noted: Background information for narratives was gathered by nothing more than judicious harvesting of the Internet for real history about alchemy, then enhanced with dollops of speculative fiction. The narratives, therefore, may contain errors, misinterpretations, shaky judgments, incorrect assumptions, contradictions and conflation of facts that should not be in same bed with each other.

As above, so below. Until next year in London!


1. The Alchemists Are Summoned To Prague

Who “summoned” the alchemists to Prague? Introducing Rudolph II (1552-1612), the Holy Roman Emperor and Hapsburg King of Bohemia and Hungary. He didn’t use magic incantations, but the more effective lure of a well-stocked lab and financial support. In real history, Rudolph was a patron of art, alchemy and astronomy/astrology, gathered a renowned cabinet of curiosities and did in fact invite European alchemists to his court.

In an alternative timeline, perhaps he decides at some point to organize a secret conclave of the leading practitioners from different times and places, most likely putting them to work in Mihulka Tower of Prague Castle. (The first of many “perhaps-es” in these notes.) Goal: to achieve the irrefutable production of certain substances and creatures that would contribute immeasurably to expanding his power and influence.

2. Gifts Are Exchanged With Visitors From The East

Alchemy was historically practiced in India, China and the Islamic world long before it arrived in medieval Europe. Though the Silk Road was long out of commission, in a different history, who knows what findings of occult arts might have been brought west by land or sea in Rudolph II’s era (Track 1)? Materials uncommon in the West? Hitherto unknown Arabic translations of lost ancient Greek Hermetic literature? (Track 4) Unfamiliar teachings from Taoist alchemy?

3. Transmutations 1

The first of four short interludes for duets between flute and other instruments, letting the alchemists take a break to consider what to do next.

4. Samba For Hermes Trismegistus

Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice great”) is a slippery guy to pin down. His first name is associated with that of the Greek god (aka Mercury to the Romans), whose trickster persona was one of many attributes on a rap sheet a mile long (wisdom, thievery, messenger, moves between boundaries, takes souls to the underworld, etc etc).

As a person existing in ancient times, he may be more mythological than actual. In any event, he is referenced by both Christian and later Islamic cultures as the prophet/philosopher/author of books that give us the hermetic philosophy mainlined over the centuries by western alchemy, though his name may also have been placed on some to provide more promo.

Let’s pretend he existed. If so, he would be long dead by the time Rudolph II (Track 1) was active - unless … might he have beaten Albertus Magnus to the punch in producing the immortal-granting Elixir of Life (Track 10)? Or better yet, did he partake of some of the attributes of his namesake, especially as the one who crosses boundaries and transitions, giving him the skill to open a time portal at will to roam the ages? That’s why he might call for a samba, whose rhythm he always loved, when feeling in a joyful mood. He certainly leaves his footprints across a lot of tracks in this tale.

In Prague, Hermes takes pleasure in long discussions with fanboy John Dee (Track 9) while they walk along the banks of the Vltava. Today he sits on a bench in Central Park near Bethesda Fountain, dispensing wisdom and playing congas to all willing to listen.

5. A Conversation With Whales And Dolphins

Whales and dolphins have nothing to do with alchemy. But let us pretend that John Dee - whoops, haven’t met him yet (Track 9) - using one of his crystal balls to chat with angels, unexpectedly reached instead a different level of sentient beings.

He realized that these oceanic intelligences would know more about the chemical composition of some of the strange creatures and mineral forms that lie beneath the sea than we do. Perhaps they could nudge something to the surface that could be collected for experiments? A stretch, but worth a try. Still, no dice. The cetaceans wouldn’t cooperate and Dee came to believe he had really been communicating with some mischievous sprites. At any rate, the sound of the track demanded this title.

6. Were The Ingredients Mixed Properly?

Results, results, always so hard and fleeting! Does the group even know what it’s doing? Experiments can’t be rushed, but Rudolph II (Track 1) is impatient for discoveries. Still they must proceed carefully. There might be unknown dangers if the elements used and the way they are combined are not precisely right. Try a different mix. See what happens. Start again. (Who said that?)

7. Transmutations 2

The second of four short interludes for duets between flute and other instruments, letting the alchemists take a break to consider what to do next.

8. Djinn And Tonic

Did you think alchemists have no sense of humor? Perhaps one of the “visitors from the East” (Track 2) was a learned gentleman from Baghdad who brought along a certain lamp. But maybe talk of a djinn was a coverup for something else. After all, the reign of Rudolph II (Track 1) overlapped for a time with the life of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague.

According to literary tales that emerged centuries after his death, Rabbi Loew created the Golem of Prague out of clay and the inscription of certain Hebrew letters on its brow. Of course, there is nothing alchemical about this, but let us not draw petty lines. Suppose he did do this. Historically, he did meet Rudolph, who (no surprise) was interested in the Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. Perhaps Rudolph wondered if there were other means of producing the creature. Would not an army of Golems be useful in his wars against the Turks? But the Rabbi would not be part of such a plan fraught with the danger of playing with powers not meant to be used for the benefit of the state.

9. John Dee Is Late For An Experiment

English-born John Dee, astronomer, mathematician, accumulator of a great library, navigation teacher, promoter of British imperialism, user of scrying crystal balls in efforts to communicate with angels and demons etc etc, was one of the most prominent alchemists of his time. He lived in Rudolph II’s era (Track 1) and in fact spent some time in Central Europe with his sidekick and assistant Edward Kelley, possibly a con man, possibly sincerely deluded, who claimed success in angelic contact.

Historically, Dee attempted to gain the patronage of Rudolph and the King of Poland for his alchemical endeavors, but was not successful, although the flamboyant Kelley did end up as an alchemist to the Emperor. For this tale, let’s say both of them get the nod. Which means Dee, as a scholar of Hermetic philosophy, was thrilled to meet Hermes Trismegistus, the man himself (Track 4), in Rudolph’s conclave.

They often spent evenings, unrecognized, hoisting beers (all craft, all the time) in the pubs below Rudolph’s castle. Which might have made both of them late, more than once, in attending a nighttime experiment.

10. Searching For The Elixir Of Life

The Elixir of Life may or may not be related to the Philosopher’s Stone (Track 16), from which it may or may not be produced. It’s like that in alchemy. That’s why you must do experiments. The Elixir is indispensable for achieving immortality (while remaining young), among other fabulous features.

The presence of the ageless Hermes Trismegistus (Track 4) and Albertus Magnus (Track 12) among the participants would be a distinctive clue that somebody had found a way to make the Elixir. Or maybe not. The two elders were not revealing their trade secrets; the conclave got nowhere on its own.

11. Transmutations 3

The third of four short interludes for duets between flute and other instruments, letting the alchemists take a break to consider what to do next.

12. Albert Magnus Steps Out Of The Lab To Watch A Parade Go By

Albert, aka Albertus Magnus (the CD uses a moshed-up version of his name), was a 13th century German scientist/philosopher/theologian, scholar of Aristotle, member of the Dominican Order, canonized in 1931, known for his wide-ranging knowledge. Though rumored to have studied alchemy, he apparently was not a practitioner - but he did favor experimentation as a path to knowledge.

In this narrative, Rudolph II (Track 1) wants him to act as a steady hand on the more imaginative members of the group he summons. Since it was exhausting keeping tabs on what everyone else was doing, no wonder he wandered out of the lab at some point to catch a passing parade of circus performers.

Of course, for Albert to be around centuries after his birth implies he had stumbled on or had been given the Elixir of Life (Track 10). This means he would have witnessed the unfolding of the Protestant Reformation earlier in the 16th century. But he was in no danger in the court of a nominally Catholic Hapsburg like Rudolph, all the more so since the Emperor was neither a practicing Catholic nor open to Protestant theology. If anything might have put Albert off, it would have been Rudolph’s humanist indifference to religion.

13. Rudolph II Is Not Pleased With The Results Of His Funding

So much effort, so few results, much royal rumbling. So what if Rudolph II (Track 1) is helping to fuel, in some perspectives, the emerging scientific revolution by his support of experimental, evidence-based ways of thinking, however fantastical the goals. He wants objects of power which elude his team. Of course, all the time, the power at hand inhered in the scientific potential of the lab itself.

14. An Ancient Manuscript Is Opened

There are many candidates for what manuscript the alchemical conclave poured over. One possibility is the influential Tabula Smaragdina (the Emerald Table), not least because it names Hermes Trismegistus (Track 4) as the author, although
it is apparently the work of several individuals dating to the second and third centuries CE.

However, in this alternative timeline Mr. T might well have brought along a personal copy to discuss and compare with any of the multiple Latin translations and commentaries made during the Middle Ages - including one by Albertus Magnus (Track 12). Everything connects.

But maybe talk of an “ancient” manuscript was another coverup (Track 8). Could the alchemists really have been studying the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, which apparently dates to the 15th century? Some allege it was sold to Rudolph II (Track 1) by John Dee (Track 9). Not considered likely by scholars, but good enough to enter the voracious maw of this story. If Rudolph had it, he would want his all-star team to take a crack at trying to decipher a document written in an unknown language or code that has defied cryptographers to this day. They would be glad to take it on if only to appease their increasingly frustrated patron.

15. Transmutations 4

The fourth of four short interludes for duets between flute and other instruments, letting the alchemists take a break to consider what to do next.

16. The Philosopher’s Stone

Creation of the Philosopher’s Stone was the focus of what Hermetic tradition called the Magnum Opus, The Great Work. The Stone could supposedly be brought to reality by using a universal substance called “prima materia” (first matter), the supposed essence or base of all matter, transmuted through several stages of chemical processing associated with certain colors. Where you find prima materia in the first place is not so clear; for some, it is more of an esoteric quality essential to development of the human self.

In any case, if you’re into mere materialism, the Stone is the thingamabob needed, in its different manifestations, to turn base metals into the more pure forms of gold or silver. It was also useful in healing illnesses and giving you a better chance at prolonging life than cryogenics, among many other functions.

No wonder it was the one object Rudolph II (Track 1) most dearly sought. Who wouldn’t? But there are too many chemical recipes offered by the alchemists for its creation. Is it even a physical object or, akin to prima materia, more like a metaphor or symbol for personal purification? Perhaps guidance was found in the Tabula Smaragdina (Track 14). But the beakers are silent.

17. The Alchemists Bid Farewell Till Next Year In London

All good grants come to an end. Plus, the alchemists’ patron, Rudolph II (Track 1), is getting rather demanding in the face of constant failure, while his extravagant expenditures on the arts, wars and other unseemly pursuits are pissing off too many citizens. His dissatisfaction is not to be taken lightly. In real history he did imprison Edward Kelley (Track 9) twice, partly for not achieving the results wanted. Time to find another home for next year and keep trying, over and over again.

John Dee (Track 9), an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, suggests - how about London? Perhaps he can wrangle an invitation. His contemporary, Isaac Newton, would certainly approve. Done! Last one out, dowse the flames under the retorts.

Each instrument does a short solo of acknowledgement to its colleagues, the others respond and the percussion takes us out with a swing beat - ending with the same thwack of a drum that started Track 1.

And so the League of Alchemists was born, periodically gathering itself to continue the Magnum Opus (Track 16) of Hermetic tradition, perhaps to carry out other missions as well, spiritual and physical, into the present era…



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Jason E Lectric

This Is Fantastic Jazz!!
I don't have much more to say than what I already said in the title, but this is indeed fantastic jazz. I grew up in a jazz city (Kansas City) and I know and love good jazz.