Pieces of a Dream
When native Philadelphians and lifelong friends James K. Lloyd, Curtis Harmon and Cedric Napoleon first began jamming together in junior high in the mid-70s, they had no idea that their vague musical dreams would evolve into one of contemporary jazz's most enduring legacies. Nor did the teenagers realize that their Grover Washington produced 1981 debut Pieces of a Dream would prove a groundbreaking recording which would help pave the way for the type of urban styled smooth jazz that we hear on the airwaves today.
The edge of the new millenium seems the perfect time to take stock of nearly two decades of smooth vibes and reach back to the type of magic that defined the group in the early days. While their 1997 album Pieces mined similar retro territory, it was conceived as a high profile superstar collaboration, with artist/ producers George Duke, Jeff Lorber, Everette Harp and Maxi Priest. The title of Pieces of a Dream's latest, Ahead to the Past, reflects the new album's more home grown approach to the classic Pieces sound.
"Our fans continually tell us that while they've enjoyed all our music over the years, there's something special and free spirited about our first three early 80s albums that continues to keep them excited," says Lloyd, the band's keyboardist. "Some even say it's the best stuff we ever recorded. On the new album, we decided to go back to the old school way of recording, doing the whole album at one studio and doing it all by ourselves. While focusing on keeping the flavor of those old albums at the forefront, we're still creating contemporary music that takes a forward glance into where the genre is headed.
"The chief difference between then and now is that we were kids then, just playing to have a good time and less concerned about having a hit record," adds Harmon, Pieces' longtime drummer. "The goal then was to have fun and hope that people would listen and enjoy it. Ahead to the Past is the best of both worlds, combining that fresh-faced daring innocence with all the spiritual and musical growth which has made our songs and productions better over the years."
While Lloyd and Harmon have guided Pieces of a Dream since the beginning, and Napoleon rejoined several years ago after some time off to pursue other projects, the band has always been known for its unique revolving door policy with other band members. The contributing musicians to Ahead to the Past include saxophonist Eddie Baccus Jr., guitarists Randy Bowland and Ronny Jordan, bassist Bill Pierce, keyboardists Cherie Mitchell and Michael (Antonio) Thornton, and percussionists Dr. Leonard Gibbs and Pablo Batista, Jr.
Ahead to the Past surges forward with the cool, laid back funk of Napoleon's "Took So Long," which features a seductive lead soprano sax line by Baccus. "It's kind of a wistful tune, a little bit Grover, a little bit in the style of Bobby Caldwell but without the vocals," says Lloyd. Playful soul and elegant romance, the two trademark styles of the Pieces experience, come to light on the next two tunes, the bouncy upgrooving urban jam "Malibu Nights" (highlighted by the spirited interaction of Lloyd's piano, Pierce's bubbly bass and Baccus' percussive soprano) and the sweet, lush vocal tune "Why Don't You Let Me Love You," sung by Calvin Richardson. "Both of these songs grew layer upon layer as everyone came up with new ideas," says Lloyd. "The idea for the vocal grew out of a conversation the guys were having about how women sometimes don't let a man appreciate them for who they are. The lyricist, Wayne Robinson, had written all these sentiments in poem form, and we created the music around that."
"Love You For Life" is pure vintage Pieces of a Dream romance, with Lloyd's smooth and graceful declaration of a lifetime commitment enhanced beautifully by Baccus' silky soprano lines. "Love songs have always been at the forefront of music, jazz, R&B and other forms, and they've always come naturally to me. Love has always been my best inspiration for writing strong, direct to the heart melodies." The exotic, Latin spiced "The Good Life (La Feliz Vida)" is a bit of a departure for the band, but the rolling, mega percussive twists and turns are just as festive as any uptempo R&B tune Pieces has ever done. "Michael Thornton has been a contributing keyboardist to our projects for ten years, and this was his idea," says Harmon. "We haven't done the Latin thing too much, but we love the music so we thought it would be a fun little detour. It's islandy vibe evokes both the idea of peace and the notion of party." The moody ballad "You and I" (featuring a spirited Rhodes solo by Cherie Mitchell) and the mid-tempo melodic funk gem "Philly High" (a tribute to the band's Brotherly roots) capture a retro vibe with a 70s-80s fusion flavor reminiscent of the band's first albums. "To us, the Philly feeling is kind of easy listening soul music that's caught between the fast pace of New York jazz and the more laid back West Coast groove," says Lloyd.
Though it began life as a vocal tune, the now instrumental "It's You That I Want"-with its spacey synth effects, hypnotic swirling keyboard tones and sparse electric piano melody--is definitely Twilight Zone jazz for the new millenium. Harmon muses, "We wanted it a little crazy by design, something more atypical of us and ethereal." After a throbbing, hip-hoppy burst of buoyant energy on "Driving It Home," the simply titled "You" calms the shores with a breezy, floating dreamstate kind of romantic vibe. The final tracks of Ahead to the Past are two more tender romances which will no doubt vy with "For You" as the ultimate Pieces ballad: the gentle soprano ballad "Bella Voce (Beautiful Voice)," which features the harmony of Larry Gold's cello) and the Lloyd-composed tearjerking closer "Cry of the Lonely." "This is what tears would sound like if they made music," Lloyd says wistfully.
Curtis Harmon's father Danny, a jazz vibist, and his uncle Bill Harmon, have been the band's managers since the beginning. Danny Harmon's friendship with Grover Washington, Jr.'s manager helped hook the boys up with the legendary Philly saxman. Washington produced Pieces' self titled debut and also their follow-ups for Elektra, We Are One (1982) and Imagine This (1983 - only LP). The group came to a greater notoriety when they toured as Washington's backup band on tours throughout Japan, Europe, Mexico and the US. During the three years between Imagine This and 1986's Joyride, Pieces became a hugely successful touring act in its own right. And, as Lloyd likes to joke, "If we were touring constantly without a new album out, imagine how busy we've been ever since with a steady stream of new releases as well as the advent of the current smooth jazz format!"
Subsequent Pieces of a Dream recordings include Makes Ya Wanna (1987), 'Bout That Time (1989), In Flight (1991), Goodbye Manhattan (1993), Best of Pieces of a Dream (1995, featuring four new tracks), and 1997's Pieces. "We've hung together so well all these years because it's the most natural thing we can do," says Lloyd. "In the studio and onstage, we just have fun and can read each other's minds. We're also not afraid to take chances, improvise and dare the other members of the band to keep up with the changes. Having this talent, meeting each other and staying together so long would be rewards and blessings from God in and of themselves, but then there is also the great joy we get from the way our music touches people. Our goal is to always make music we are happy with, and at the same time make people feel melancholy, festive, romantic.however we ourselves feel making music at any given moment." Even as those amazing moments take you Ahead to the Past.