Fertile Ground: Black Is . . .
Vocalist Navasha Daya lays bare everything at stake on Fertile Ground’s new, fourth album, Black Is . . . , in the first line uttered: “I wanna know the role of my soul in the spirit world.” Daya’s voice—as enchanting as ever—comes rapid-firing out of James Collins’ keyboard swing and Craig Alston’s sax fever, and she hits the round, long vowels in volume bubble-bursts that spread the “know,” “role,” and “soul” over the brain like oleo over a muffin. This is one of the most precarious tightropes to walk. Put the talk above the groove and it’s like staying after school; wander too far into spiritual clouds and you leave behind the folks working too much to think about such luxuries; and lay the preaching on too thick and it’s like going to church on Saturday night. If you want to reach the people you got to keep them listening, and rather than follow the mistakes of Afrocentric album duds, intentionally or not Fertile Ground channels a forgotten period in the career of Archie Shepp. Over four albums from 1970 to ’72 (For Losers, Things Have Got to Change, Attica Blues, and The Cry of My People), arguably the angriest and most fiery personality in late-1960s avant-garde jazz turned his formidable brain to all of black music—from blues and gospel to R&B and jazz—to both define and discuss being an African-American.
FG’s approach here is suitably pan-music, wedding vibe to sound to hold the ears while feeding the mind. “Live in the Light” puts surging sax and Afro-Caribbean drum charts behind a funky guitar strut, and Daya turns protest poster-speak—“Let’s stop the war, stop poor, stop for peace, stop the bomb, stop Bush”—into jazz scatting counterrhythm. The band matches Olu Butterfly’s whip-smart verse in “An Artist Prayer” with a hypnotic percussion and vocal chants throb, letting Butterfly’s lithe reading take the usual saxophonist solo spotlight and run with it. And the group knows well enough to let the music speak for itself, as in the roiling slow burn “Shout” and flute interlude “Light Shed’n.” Black Is . . . has its rough spots—the midtempo celebratory portrait title song sounds like every other midtempo celebratory portrait that came before it on back to Donny Hathaway’s “Thank You Master (for My Soul),” and it’s really hard to improve perfection—but a band walking its talk this engagingly is a rare feat.