PIECES OF A DREAM

"No Assembly Required"

Heads Up

Pieces of a Dream first recorded as a trio of Philadelphia teenagers under the mentorship of Grover Washington Jr. in 1981. In the 23 years since, the group has managed to stay atop the fickle pop-jazz field by serving up easy-to-digest instrumentals that function as mood-inducing background sounds. The band's latest album, "No Assembly Required," offers two primary moods: hip-shaking party music and resistance-melting seduction music.

Original bassist Cedric Napoleon left the trio in the early '90s, rejoined in 1997 and left again. Original drummer Curtis Harmon still appears on the new album's cover, but he performs on only three of the disc's 11 tracks. For all intents and purposes, Pieces of a Dream is now keyboardist James Lloyd and whomever he hires to play on his compositions. On two of the new tracks, Lloyd simply plays all the instruments himself, as if he were Stevie Wonder or Prince.

Lloyd is talented, no doubt about it, but he always plays it so safe that he never tests the limits of his gifts. He occasionally throws a few bars of jazz piano into his R&B instrumentals as if to tease listeners with the possibilities but immediately goes back to the simple melody and the repeating groove. His seduction numbers are a bit bland, but his party pieces can be fun, especially when he sets up a Junior Walker-like sax solo by Eddie Baccus Jr. on "Want a Piece of This?" or by Jason Davis on "Dyse It Up."

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing through Sunday at Blues Alley. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Pieces of a Dream, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8107. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)