Friday, March 31, 2006

Spotlight is on Pieces' core members

Flip over the case of Pieces of a Dream's new CD, "Pillow Talk," and something immediately strikes you.

The photo shows only two pieces of Pieces of a Dream, founding members Curtis Harmon and James Lloyd.

Since around 1990, the group has used a bevy of musicians - saxophonists, vocalists, guitarists and bassists (including Cedric Napoleon, an original member no longer with the group) - who were included in publicity shots, CD cover art and liner note photos.

But now, as the group celebrates its 30th anniversary, the marketing has tightened on the original members, just as in the 1980s, when what was then a precocious trio from Philly first attained success.

"Curtis and I are the core members," Lloyd said in a telephone interview from his home in Youngstown, Ohio. "People know we've had several [other musicians] come in and out of our lives. We don't want to confuse anyone as to who to expect in live concerts."

The renewed focus sets the group's identity, Lloyd said. "For the longest time, I thought Euge Groove was a group, like Bona Fide or Down to the Bone. And Nils? I'm still not sure about that one."

(For the record, Nils is a German guitarist, a long-time session musician and composer whose instrumental pop music album, "Pacific Coast Highway," was released last year.)

Regardless of who's in the band, Pieces gets props for surviving so long in a format so dependent on steady hits, radio play and stage charisma.

"Pillow Talk," released this week, doesn't upset Pieces' apple cart. Fans of the group's instrumental pop music ("smooth jazz") won't be disappointed, especially with the radio-friendly "Forward Motion" (co-written with Najee) with saxophonist Tony Watson Jr., and the obligatory cover, "Sailing," made popular by Christopher Cross.

It also has vocals that lean toward R&B - the fun, man-hating "Triflin'," the jazzier "Those 3 Words" and "Your Love" - all with Ramona Dunlap singing lead.

Fans of Pieces' early years with Grover Washington Jr. might find the up-tempo "Wake Up Call" more to their liking. Lloyd is all over the piano, while Harmon plays like he's been unshackled from the audio click-track chains.

Still, after three decades, "more is expected of us, just by the simple fact things change," said Lloyd, who writes most of Pieces' music.

"Anything that comes out of me, in essence, is me," Lloyd said. "I don't put anything out there that I wouldn't feel happy about performing or hearing."

With one exception.

Lloyd cites the CD, "Bout Dat Time," a 1989 Blue Note release that was mostly dance-oriented. "There was one song on there that I think fit Pieces," Lloyd said. "We weren't feeling it."

Their success, along with support from the Heads Up record label, has given them some leeway. "It's great that the record company gives us that freedom," Lloyd said. "The only requirement is that some tunes lend themselves to radio air-play."

Lloyd, who calls himself a workaholic, would like to become "the Rodney Jerkins or Jermaine Dupri of smooth jazz." He's produced for Nestor Torres and Alex Zonjic, written songs for Wayman Tisdale and works closely with Najee.

Lloyd recently performed a warmly received, acoustic straight-ahead date at LaRose Jazz Club here. There's "a strong chance" he'll do a solo album.

But there are concerns: Would he need to use the name Pieces of a Dream? What would the sound be? Would people buy it?

"All of these things have to be heavily considered and carefully thought out," Lloyd said. "I'm not scared. They're just things to consider."

By AL HUNTER JR. 215-854-5855

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