Fertile Ground Harvests a Debut Album
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Fertile Ground recently performed at Reisterstown Road Plaza on a Friday night, and it was just as chaotic as you would expect a concert at a mall to be. The band was set up in the center pavilion, so there were people walking from four directions trying to get to their shopping destinations. The food court was about 30 feet away from the bandstand. And then there was just the general conversational buzz and white noise you would expect from, well, a mall on Friday night.
Even with the distractions, Fertile Ground was on the ball. The band was poised and professional. And the music was incredible.
As with the best artists, Fertile Ground can't be pigeonholed. The group has a chimerical quality that makes it hard to pin down. The best way to describe its music is by using "not justs": Fertile Ground is not just jazz, it's not just reggae, it's not just salsa or meringue, and so on. The difference between this band and the vast majority of its closest contemporaries, is that Fertile Ground doesn't fuse genres. If the musicians are playing a version of Miles Davis' "All Blues," the group is a straight-no-chaser, disciplined, focused jazz combo. In the next song it becomes, almost instantaneously, a dancehall group; in the next, a crack R&B outfit.
The group's new self-released debut album, Field Songs, confidently showcases the band's mastery of varied musical styles, is indicative of Fertile Ground's leader, keyboardist James Collins.
The word "interview" doesn't quite describe the encounter we had after the Reisterstown Road Plaza show, because the term implies a back-and-forth conversation. In response to an innocuous question like, "What do you want to talk about?," Collins was off, for about an hour. You gotta love a man who has a lot to say.
Turns out the title of the new CD refers to the present and the past, and deals with important questions. "We're all still in the fields," Collins says. "We're all still working for someone else and Field Songs really examines that. It asks, why are we in the fields? The only way we're going to get out of the fields is to question that."
The questioning started when trumpeter Collins hooked up with drummer Marcus Asante at University of Maryland-Baltimore County. They fooled around with standards and what Collins calls "artsy songs." A little later, a mutual friend introduced them to vocalist Navasha Daya and the nucleus of what would become Fertile Ground was formed.
Collins says the original plan was to cut an album as a project and then part ways. Obviously, it didn't work out that way.
"The band was just put together for the album, but the music was too good," he recalls. "It got to the point that the music was writing itself. Life was writing the songs. Everyone had a story to tell and there was such a positive energy between us because each of us brings something different to the group."
Describing what each member brings to Fertile Ground, Collins sums it up in three words: roots, spirit, and light.
"Marcus is the roots of the group," he says. "He's a little older than the rest of us so he serves as a mentor. . . . He has this boat and he takes people out on it and just vibes with them about life. When we play the music, it's like we're back out in the boat."
Daya, he says, is the spirit.
"Navasha is the voice of the band. . . .She's really spiritually minded, and her voice has this energy that helps people to feel the vibe of Fertile Ground," Collins says. "And she's so talented! Navasha's been Ms. Morgan State, Ms. Baltimore, and she just won this year's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. So she's the one out front."
Collins refers to himself as the light of Fertile Ground, "because it was my vision," he says. "I'm the one who's kind of moving it along. I'm actually trained to be a trumpet player but I learned how to play the keyboards because you can't really lead a group with a trumpet. With the 'boards, I can control the tempo and guide where it's going."
Collins says Fertile Ground has a very specific mission.
"We're here to bring people together," he says. "We're trying to make it like back in the day when artists like, say, Lee Morgan could play music and grandmother, mom, and daughter would each find something in it for them. That's the only way we, as a people, are going to get back on track because that's where we went wrong. Once we lost our common ground between generations, that was when the trouble started.
"People come to one of our shows and then they come back. So it's like a real communal, family feeling when you come because it all continues to build off of itself."
And the future?
"Right now, we're working on another album," Collins says. "There isn't really a schedule on it because we're treating it like Field Songs--life wrote those songs and we're letting life write the songs for the new album too.
"It reminds me of one of my favorite stories," he says. "Someone once asked Duke Ellington what his favorite song was and he answered he didn't know because he hasn't written it yet. That's how I feel. We haven't done our best stuff yet."