By Frank Alkyer | Published October 2023
Composer Vincent Hsu deserves our ears. Working here with a 12-piece mini orchestra, he paints with complex brushwork from behind his upright bass. The River Jazz Suite serves as Hsu’s first recording with a large ensemble after three works with smaller, but also interesting, groupings. The premise behind his latest work is finding commonality between the Love River that runs through his hometown in Taiwan and the mighty Mississippi River, which has been so important to the history of jazz. The music is complex, but always finds the beat and drives the rhythm. The East-West fusion runs rich and deep as those two mighty rivers both in sound and in the makeup of the band with 10 Taiwanese musicians (as well as one each from Germany and Argentina). His goal was to demonstrate that Afro-Cuban music is enjoyed and played in Asia. It’s a story that goes back to the history of jazz being sent out to the world, then channeled back by those international players in new and interesting ways. Such is the case here. From the downbeat of “Overture: Cotton Field,” the first track, Hsu and company demonstrate their bona fides. The tune starts out slow and ominous, then builds into a driving jam, then drops into a Latin groove, all geared to first express the horrors of slavery, then the joy and resilience of African Americans. The entire performance gains extra zeal by being recorded live at Taiwan’s Weiwuying Recital Hall, giving the recording a raw edge that hits just right. The musicianship is amazing, with special shout-outs to Shen-yu Su on tenor saxophone, Wen-feng Cheng on trumpet and Yi-chun Teng on trombone. Throughout the set, the grooves laid down by the rhythm section of Martin Musaubach on piano, drummer Kuan-liang Lin and Carol Huang on congas are infectious. And don’t overlook the fact that Hsu as a bassist is locked, loaded and so much fun. At the core of the performance is the breathtaking Rumba For The River Trilogy with moments of shear beauty, power and joy that bring in so many influence from New Orleans all the way to Taiwan. Clocking in at more than 90 minutes, there’s a lot of music here. But it’s an enjoyable ride, one that feels like sailing downstream on a mighty river.