"Music for the River" Jazz Suite: The Spirit of Love River & Mississippi River
Release date: October 20, 2023
Label: TRR

Music for the River Jazz Suite is truly a singular and unique work of cultural and musical fusion. Fused with Afro-Cuban undertones, of which Hsu has played extensively for most of his career—this innovative new work finds common ground between two seemingly disparate great rivers: Love River of Hsu’s hometown of Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the Mississippi River, integral to the birth of jazz.

Hsu’s fourth album as a bandleader allows listeners to hear Hsu's compositions brought to life by a large ensemble for the very first time. Music for the River Jazz Suite captures the raw thrill of the concert atmosphere, recorded live at Taiwan's Weiwuying Recital Hall. Breathing life to these deeply emotive and soulful works, Hsu is joined by saxophonists Hank Pan, Shen-yu Su, and Jonas Ganzemüller, trumpeter Wen-feng Cheng, violinist Yu-chen Tseng, clarinetist Chieh-an Fan, trombonist Yi-chun Teng, guitarist Shih-chun Lee, pianist Musaubach, drummer Kuan-liang Lin, and conga player Carol Huang.

In 2002, Hsu moved to New York City to study with jazz titan Cecil McBee. Hsu remarks “[McBee] brought me to buy my first bass when I was 25 years old, ever since then, jazz has become a huge part of my life.” Hsu found deep, impactful musical connections with Latin jazz greats Andy and Jerry Gonzalez, Luis Perdomo and Zaccai Curtis. Over the course of the past two decades, Hsu has refined a remarkable compositional voice that fuses jazz and Afro-Cuban music with his Taiwanese roots.

The seeds for this incredibly creative project were planted over 15 years ago, when Hsu visited New Orleans for the first time. It was 2007, and Hsu took a trip on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. “I got to thinking about how jazz has been played on the boat since the 1920s. I also saw how the movement and the waves of the river share the same kind of motion of  jazz music when it comes to the swing feel,” he shares. Observing that the Mississippi River passes through so many important musical cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale, and New Orleans, he began composing works inspired by the river itself. Eventually, this led him to draw parallels to Love River, a 7.5 mile river known as the spine of Kaohsiung, his birthplace in Taiwan. “I wanted to connect the stories of my upbringing with my musical influences.” 

Music for the River Jazz Suite: The Spirit of Love River & Mississippi River is Hsu’s first work for a large ensemble and features his own compositions performed by a 12-piece band. Its expansive and complex sonic palette comes from unique instrumentation that marries strings, horns and Latin percussion. The band’s personnel, not unlike the music performed, reflects the globalization of jazz at its finest as the ensemble features 10 Taiwanese musicians and a pair of musicians from Argentina and Germany. “I hope this work can bring attention to the fact that Afro-Cuban music is being played in Asia. I want to share our perspectives on Latin music.”

The album begins with “Cotton Field”, a composition that acknowledges and meditates on the atrocities that slaves faced while building the United States. The beginning of the piece starts with a slow tempo to indicate the emotional experience of slaves walking reluctantly to the field. Later in the piece, the tempo picks up and becomes almost jubilant - this symbolizes the resilience, courage and faith of African Americans. This is a true ensemble piece, showcasing not only the ensemble’s tremendous instrumental acuity but their seamless interplay. “River Is Wide” presents us with the duality of water - the notion that the river gives us life but can also take it away. 

Rumba for the River Trilogy” consists of three compositions: “Father’s Melody”, “Memphis Creek” and “Dragon Dance”. Hsu notes, ““Father’s Melody” is about the melodies my father sang when I was little and represents my childhood influence. “Memphis Creek” is about the city of Memphis, with its mixed musical cultures: Rock & Roll, Blues, Jazz and Country all can be heard in the city. Therefore I wrote this tune to represent those musical influences. “Dragon Dance portrays the Dragon Boat racing tradition held on Taiwan's Love River during the annual festival on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month. This celebration safeguards individuals from malevolence and ailments throughout the year. I wrote it in 5/4 to imitate the pulse of the boat rowers, imagining the rowers shout out 1-2, 1-2-3 to synchronize their moves.”

Unknown Stars” is a story of hope and determination - indicating the fact that slaves in the South looked toward the stars for direction in order to escape to the North for freedom. This emotive ballad features a tremendous duo passage from violinist Yu-chen Tseng and Hsu, as well as saxophonist Hank Pan’s solo, “Like a Lighthouse in the Dark”. “A Pilot’s Day on the Mississippi River” is a composition about Mark Twain's childhood dream to become a steamboat pilot, a story that has always resonated with the bassist-composer.  “After Twain finally got on the boat, he realized how the Mississippi River always changes its course, and that it's very challenging to navigate.”

River Workers” is a heartfelt musical composition that draws inspiration from the individuals whose lives intertwine closely with the river as they engage in their laborious work. “Oya” is a tune Hsu wrote for the rain goddess Yoruba Orisha–Oya. Hsu indicates, “She has the power to control storms and winds. The number she represents is 9 in Yoruba religion, therefore I wrote this composition in the meter of 9/4.” The raw energy of this piece is palpable, truly capturing the jubilance of a live concert atmosphere. 


"This is my week for discoveries. I wasn’t familiar with bassist/composer Hsu until I found out about this incredible work." Check out the full feature here.

"Hsu is proud to claim that his Afro-Cuban undertones, of which Hsu has played extensively for most of his career, are very much alive in Taiwan" Check out the full feature here.

"Hsu’s fourth album as a bandleader allows listeners to hear Hsu’s compositions brought to life by a large ensemble for the very first time. Music for the River Jazz Suite captures the raw thrill of the concert atmosphere, recorded live at Taiwan’s Weiwuying Recital Hall." Check out the full article here.

"Composer Vincent Hsu deserves our ears. Working here with a 12-piece mini orchestra, he paints with complex brushwork from behind his upright bass. " Check out the full feature here.

Read the full review here.

"There is no doubting Hsu's initiative or the expertise of his Jazz Supreme Orchestra." Read the full review here.

"A thoughtful, contemplative yearning with tributaries tapering off into a maelstrom of string, horns, and Latin percussion permeates this ensemble’s circuitous journey." Read the full review here.

"Hsu is the heartbeat of this orchestrated ensemble on double bass." Read the full review here.

Check out this feature on the editor's playlist here.

"Initially “Rumba For The River Trilogy: Father’s Melody” has a nice lilting quality derived from the tunes Hsu’s father sang to him as a child. Then the music takes a sharp detour and swings into a cha-cha replete with Yu-chen Tseng on violin and Carol Huang holding down the conga chair." Check out the full article here.