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Percussionist and composer JoVia Armstrong made her name alongside an army of R&B, jazz and international luminaires, everyone from Sheila Jordan, Joe Vasconcellos and Aretha Franklin to Pat Metheny, Smokey Robinson and Ballaké Sissoko & Babanji Kone. For her (surprisingly) first solo album, the AACM member presents The Antidote Suite, a soundtrack to the Black Index art exhibit at the University of California Irvine (where Armstrong also happens to be a PhD candidate). Considering its origins, it’s no surprise that the five pieces here don’t go out of their way to draw attention to themselves – it’s accompaniment, after all. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work as a listening experience; quite the contrary, in fact.
Opener “Breathe” functions as a welcome, with atmospheric cymbals and electronic sounds easing us into Armstrong’s world. “Meditations on Oyu (Mu)” ups the rhythmic quotient and lets violinist Leslie Deshazor’s bird-in-flight lines and guitarist Jeff Parker’s arpeggios and improvisations provide more overt melodic content. That leads right into “Beautifully Black,” a melodic sound painting that draws from jazz funk as much as minimalist classical music to drive home its theme of pride in artistic expression. With its hip-hop beats and sung and rapped voices, “Zebra” might seem like an anomaly, but in truth it’s just as fascinatingly abstract as “Breathe,” a swirl of sonics integrated into a lush whole. The suite ends with “Shades and Shapes,” a gorgeous, groovy and impressionistic piece that puts Amr Fahmy’s electric piano chords under Deshazor’s haunting electric violin for a richly tuneful and deeply spiritual journey that pays overt homage to Armstrong inspiration Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi period.
Released on fellow Afrofuturist and guest flautist Nicole Mitchell’s new label, The Antidote Suite is a mysterious, lovely and thoroughly impressive debut leader statement. If this is what Armstrong can do when trying not to upstage a visual work, we can’t wait to hear what she can do with the spotlight on her from the beginning.
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