After a quarter century of playing, and a dozen albums, Pieces of a Dream keyboardist James Lloyd attributes much of his group’s success to his “mentor and musical dad,” saxophonist Grover Washington.
The band he formed as a Philadelphia teen-ager, with schoolmates Cedric Napoleon and Curtis Harmon, continues the smooth style pioneered by the late saxophonist. The band’s most recent album, “Acquainted With the Night,” features the band at its best, full of lightly polished grooves.
Reached by telephone, Lloyd recalls Pieces’ assembly: “We met in the middle-school jazz band. In fact, that band was not only where I met my future partners; it was also where I first got interested in jazz. Before that I was playing classical music and the songs I heard on the radio. But when I was around 12 I got turned on to some great jazz pianists — Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Bud Powell — and I thought, ‘OK, this will work.’
“We formed a small group for a talent contest, then, during the summer, began playing block parties. We paid our dues, starting at the ground level.”
Soon, he says, the group moved on to bigger gigs, weddings and dances for other schools.
“Then came our big break,” he recalls. “We got a job as the house band for a local TV show called City Lights. Every week there were musicians like Clark Terry and David Valentine. Then one week we met Grover.”
Philadelphia-based Grover Washington Jr. was one of the top jazz stars of the day. He achieved breakthrough success with his funky, pop-oriented, somewhat simplified form of jazz, which was the prototype for “smooth jazz.” Recognizing the talent of the young musicians, he took them under his wing.
Such stellar support transformed the fortunes of the group. “One time we were playing at the Bijou and Grover came out of the audience to join us on stage. We played [Grover’s current hit] ‘Mr. Magic.'” Lloyd remembers playing his idol’s signature song with him as “my first big musical thrill.”
Soon afterwards, Washington formed his own production company, and signed his young protégés as his first act. “He took our parents and us out to dinner. I thought, ‘This is a dream.'”
Lloyd was only 16 years old, and still a senior in high school when the first album came out. “Grover not only produced our first three albums, but played on them, and we played on a few of his. We toured with him, both as Pieces of A Dream and as his rhythm section. Performing with him, night after night, all over the world, was just awesome.”
Over the past quarter century, some things have changed. Washington died in 1999, and Napoleon has left the group, but Lloyd and Harmon are still together. “We’ve been through everything,” Lloyd says. “We have this telepathy thing going, sometimes we don’t even have to look, just read each other’s mind. That vibe becomes infectious and translates to the rest of the musicians. We can morph into anything at any given time, from straight-ahead jazz to James Brown. That keeps it fresh, both for our audience and for ourselves.”
“Every now and then we bust into a song or two of Grover’s,” he says.
“The things that he taught me are still ringing in my ears. Let the music breathe, don’t play like you are being paid by the note. Listen to each other and work off the audience. Try and be creative; even if you are doing the same song you don’t have to do it in the same way.”
“That’s my life,” Lloyd says. “Even when I’m off the road I’m in my home studio, staying up, composing music until 7 a.m. And as soon as I hang up this phone, I’m going back to it.”