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Harvest Time

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Hat Band: Navasha Daya leads Fertile Ground through a hot set at Fletcher's.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/28/2001

Fertile Ground, Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes

Fertile Ground, Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes


Navasha Daya has a halo. A broad yellow disc shot through with sparkling gold stripes hovers just behind her head, framing her regal cheekbones and equally sparkling smile. Her halo is actually part of a hat so grand one is tempted to call it a headdress, and, in a way, that's appropriate. There is a ceremonial air to tonight's set by Fertile Ground. Keyboardist/composer James Collins invokes "libations" and "blessings," while Daya seems lost in a prayerful sway during the opening tune's intro and in transcendent dancing once the rhythm heats up. There is definitely a flash of the divine--or at least the heavenly--in the local group's hour-plus show.

The evening started off on an earthier note with a set from Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes. Bobbing up and down in his seat behind the piano and sporting a natty Tyrolean-green lid, Gilchrist led his horn-spiked sextet through its unique, uncategorizable hybrid of jazz expansiveness and funk slam--syncing up with drummer Nathan Reynolds to drive the slow-burn, low-end vamp of "Rumble" one minute, embarking on one of his obsessive, arpeggio-laden solos (like as not finished off with an elbow thrown onto the keys) the next. It's a hard sound to encapsulate, but it's easy to let go of worrying about that, thanks to the group's accomplished pulse and stellar solo work from trumpeter Freddie Dunn and saxophonist John Dierker.

Dunn returned to the stage later as half of Fertile Ground's horn section (with saxophonist Craig Alston), and that's not where the similarities between the two groups end. Like Gilchrist, Collins, Daya, and drummer Marcus Asante have been playing around town for years, cultivating a stable lineup and a sound that dances across genre barriers with abandon. Collins began the set with an oscillating two-chord keyboard line that sounded a bit like a signal from one of Sun Ra's lost satellites (an impression underlined by the singer's cosmic-queen aura). Two songs later, the jazzy "Yesterdays" broke into the first of many scotch-bonnet-hot rhythm jams featuring Asante, percussionist Ekendra Das, and a cowbell-wielding Daya. As the set wore on, Fertile Ground's island roots broke the surface in the soca-style shuffle beat of "Peace and Love" and the reggae undertow of "Be Natural."

But it wasn't mere genre-hopping verve that kept the dance floor moving or had the crowd clapping and singing along unbidden. Fertile Ground has grown into one of the mid-Atlantic's truly stellar bands, and Daya very well may be Baltimore's pre-eminent vocalist, in any style. Collins and company bring a tangible joy as well as passion and polish to their instrumental compote of soul, jazz, and Caribbean roots, and it shows. And even though Fletcher's crap sound system failed her time and again, Daya's star quality shone through, swinging the tongue-tripping melody of brand-new tune "Take Me Higher" like a big-band lark and delivering calls for peace and love and healing the earth with the kind of vocal power and sincerity that squashed any cynicism or doubt against the back wall. If you want to be able to say you saw Fertile Ground when, this show made it seem as if the very next show might be your last chance. (Lee Gardner)

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