Dreamroot: Leaf  |  ★★★1/2 | Self-released; October 28

There’s a moment at the beginning of “Get Better,” the fifth track on Dreamroot’s second album, Leaf, that seems to neatly encapsulate the record’s overall mood. Over a bed of warm, washed-out synths, keyboardist Joe MacPhail rolls a gentle four-chord progression on what sounds like a Fender Rhodes. Drummer Theous Jones lays down the barest skeleton of a beat while Lynn Grissett layers down multiple, burbling trumpet lines that seem to echo to infinity. After about 30 seconds, Ittai Korman brings in a thick, R&B bass line and for a moment, the song snaps into gear.

But the draw of that reverberating stasis, that feeling of almost pure vibes, proves too strong to resist, and the band returns to it often throughout the album’s six songs.

Unlike on their last album, 2020’s Phases, the Durham-based quartet seem to fully embrace the possibilities of studio production here. Everything is built in layers, something that Grissett in particular takes full advantage of. Now the group’s sole horn player, he plays both trumpet and saxophone, sometimes adding muted trumpet countermelodies; sometimes recreating the tight, ebullient charts he played as part of the New Power Generation; and sometimes constructing dialogues with himself. The layer from other band members is a little more subtle—an extra bowed bass line here, an extra synth pad there—but the overall effect is to make their sound that much more capacious than before. Even the songs where they act as a “traditional” jazz combo hide little studio flourishes here and there.

What’s more surprising is that they manage to do all of this while still maintaining the logic of a four-minute pop song. Each tune is crisply constructed and easy to follow, and Grissett’s and Jones’s solos are both concise and melodic. It’s an impressive combination, though I sometimes wish they would push on the possibilities of their various moods a little harder and maybe gesture more toward the weird jazz/pop/funk eclecticism of folks like Robert Glasper or Thundercat.

As with their last album, they’re still occasionally closer to background music than I’d like, but they’re a bit farther from that line than before, and the choice to go fully instrumental here serves them well. I’ll be curious to see how they continue to develop and expand their sound going forward.

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