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Percussionist and composer JoVia Armstrong, a Detroit native, matured as an artist on the fertile Chicago music scene. She has performed with musicians as varied as flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble and Malian singer Babani Koné, as well as with the genre-defying JC Brooks Band. Armstrong brings this versatility to her captivating debut, The Antidote Suite. Commissioned as an accompaniment to the Black Index Art Exhibit, the album features Armstrong on a hybrid cajon (box drum) kit along with violinist Leslie DeShazor and a few guests. The electronic beats of opener “Breathe” set a mesmerizing ambience. DeShazor plays a haunting melody with an ethereal touch and improvises lyrically with an Eastern-flavored mysticism. Guitarist Jeff Parker’s fiery phrases add to the cinematic mood.
The soulfulness continues on “Meditations on Oya (M?)”, an homage to the Yoruba wind goddess and protector of women. Flutist Mitchell brings to the tune her signature virtuosity while pianist Amr Fahmy’s block chords provide its pulse. Armstrong’s breathtakingly agile solo brims with a primal spirituality, especially in the setting of vocalist Yaw Agyeman’s wordless refrains.
Forlorn instrumental fragments and Agyeman’s voice coalesce into a passionate, chant-like song on the uniquely creative “Zebra.” Then, over Armstrong and bassist Isaiah Sharkey’s thumping cadence, rapper Teh’Ray “Phenom” Hale lets loose an eloquent torrent of crisp rhymes. Parker’s resonant guitar lines, punctuated by DeShazor’s pizzicato notes, bridge the piece’s halves. The more dissonant second segment morphs into a psychedelic version of the first, resulting in a provocative contrast. The Antidote Suite showcases Armstrong’s superb command of her instrument, inventive writing and confident leadership. It is brief yet poignant, diverse yet cohesive; a strong first statement from a young musician with a bright future. — Hrayr Attarian