Life & Umbrella
Release date: May 12, 2023
Label: Desafio Candente Records

Life & Umbrella is the latest release from Chicago-based pianist and composer Javier Red. Across twelve ambitious and complex compositions, Red divulges the profound reception of his son’s autism diagnosis alongside his daring four-piece ensemble Imagery Converter. 

The potent working unit returns on its sophomore project here with drummer Gustavo Cortinas, bassist Ben Dillinger, saxophonist Jake Wark and Red at the helm. In 2019, Imagery Converter gained notoriety after its eponymous debut release, which was lauded by critics and named to NPR Jazz Critics’ Best Debut Albums of 2019. Leaning thoroughly on a contemporary aesthetic, the band is bounded by a collective approach to blurring the lines of composition and improvisation. Now, with the release of Life & Umbrella, Red maneuvers that familiar territory with meaningful introspection.

“There is little being done to teach neurotypicals to understand autistic persons,” Red shared in  a statement. Even through its title, which addresses the autism range as an umbrella rather than a spectrum, Life & Umbrella challenges us to explore how we are conditioned to empathize with neurodivergent individuals. “Through music’s unique ability to create emotional connections with others, I hope to contribute to filling that empathy gap.”

Red extrapolates these ideas into musical concepts elevated by each member of Imagery Converter and achieved through several years of dedicated collective work. Drummer and composer Gustavo Cortiñas lends a grounded feel to the date, often providing a gravitas to the complex structures of this music. Most evident on compositions such as “This Is What They Found”, the drummer leads the ensemble through an ever-shifting rhythmic landscape, deeply grooving all the way through.

With a sumptuous crooning tone on the tenor sax, Jake Wark seamlessly partakes in the overall texture of the ensemble, often playing melodic and rhythmic fragments in unison with the group while creating thrilling moments of invention through improvisation. On “Resilience Cycle”, Wark manages to navigate the many angular edges of the composition effortlessly, continually prioritizing a sense of lyricism and finding compelling melodies to fit over Red’s tricky arrangement.

Bassist Ben Dillinger makes his role as the backbone of the group a heroic one, playing with astounding aplomb and assisting his bandmates with taking chances. Zooming in on his playing on “Brain Checking” for example, one can almost grasp some of the inner workings of Red’s writing thanks to Dillinger’s earnest clarity.

Red’s piano playing has an orchestral quality. He shifts between lush harmonies to playing intricate counterpoints, melodies and basslines often all within the same tune. This quality is maintained in his virtuosic solos as he continues to address these structural elements while simultaneously improvising. “We’ve had to explore an organic rhythmic approach not tied to conventional meters or recognizable jazz grooves. The result is music that is intuitive but also, seductively puzzling.”

Life & Umbrella finds four seasoned musicians assenting entirely to their leader’s concept and invites us to do the same. Each song title is symbolic and encompasses a relationship with the canopy of traits associated with autism. Creating a bridge of understanding for the listener, Red invites all to ponder his narrative abstractly and organically like its origins. Refraining from sentimentality, Javier Red’s writing is a means of expressing feeling, and the poignant output it delivers is sanctified by a quiet intensity.

EDITOR
DISTRITO JAZZ
Read the feature in spanish here.

J.R. Nelson & Leor Galil
CHICAGO READER
Read the feature here.

EDITOR
JOHN CHACONA
Read the feature here.

EDITOR
TAKE EFFECT
"A collective sophomore effort that embraces improvisation and composed moments, Red and company make for an unpredictable and highly memorable affair that balances quite versus intense songwriting." Read the full review here.