Jazz-funk fusion seven-piece Cong-Fusion’s debut album The World As We Know It is brimming with musical inspirations from Afro-Cuban music, jazz, funk and soul, with deep personal reflections on family, bullying, alcohol, and the experience of travel, conveying an urgent ecological message. Composer and bandleader Ryan McCaffrey looks forward to the band’s forthcoming gig at CLF Art Lounge. Interview by AJ Dehany.
“With Cong-Fusion I was thinking about a name – I came up with ‘Confusion’ but with Congas in there,” explains pianist, composer, educator and bandleader Ryan McCaffrey. “The project actually began in my final year at Birmingham Conservatoire way back in 2006. For my final project I had to produce a CD and I composed five tracks specifically for this and named it The Connection.” Cong-Fusion make stylistically diverse party jazz for the body and mind with inspirations from Afro-Cuban music, funk and soul, and jazz greats including Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver. The mixing and mixture of styles was the main ethos behind those compositions at the time. “I wanted to make it accessible to people who don’t listen to jazz but so people who do listen to jazz can also appreciate it.”
Cong-Fusion’s debut album The World As We Know It, features two of these tunes with others refined over the years, giving the album an assured robustness and depth. “I like to play around with styles, especially Afro-Cuban. I like to mix it up, using three horns.” His decision to write for a seven-piece format was born out of finding he preferred that to writing for a full orchestra, discovered while he was trying to arrange one of his tunes at the invitation of Steve Titchener for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. It might not have come off, “but it was nice to be asked, definitely!”
Ryan McCaffrey’s compositions are playful and musically allusive at the same time as meaningful and intensely personal, with strong family inspirations that come from the heart. Cong-Fusion’s first single (sung by MC E-Mix of Soul II Soul) is a hard-hitting account of the effects of bullying. A sequel of sorts, Don’t You Dare concerns alcoholism close to home, written for a family member. “He actually was really bad in lockdown. He hated the song but maybe it helped give him the motivation to give up.”
Peace For Jean is inspired by Wayne Shorter and written in memory of Ryan’s grandmother, Jean Reetz, who sadly lost her battle with cancer shortly before Ryan’s final performance at Birmingham Conservatoire. Song For My Grandfather cleverly reworks Horace Silver’s signature tune, with lyrics written for his own grandfather. “The only change I thought up was to stop the band so you can really hear the horn writing. We played it at the exact same tempo, 126bpm.” He is about to become a father, so continuing family inspirations will no doubt prove inspirational. “I’ll probably write one for my son, who is going to be named Henry after my grandfather.”
The title track was composed as a reflection on the world and climate change. The music video includes footage taken from Ryan’s journey around the world while working on cruise ships in French Polynesia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Alaska, including a dramatic carving of a glacier in Tracy Arm, a fjord in Alaska. For years the glacier has been receding dramatically. It has become a central symbol of Ryan’s urgent message. “There’s no denying it – climate change is real and we need to act now before it is too late. We live in a beautiful world full of creatures who are fast becoming extinct. I have been lucky enough to see them on my travels. I just hope you live long enough to have the pleasure of seeing the world in its natural beauty as I have, or whatever’s left of it.”
Cong-Fusion goes back a few years with varied lineups and members dipping in and out as always happens in jazz with busy jobbing musicians. In fact Ryan used to run a jam session at Deptford’s creative hub The Job Centre; some big names passed through including Clark Tracey, Alan Barnes, Trevor Tompkins, Nigel Price, Binker Golding and Sophie Alloway. One tends to overlook the importance of such jams as places for musicians to meet each other, play together and later form groups. Is that a common way to meet? “Yeah, mostly jam sessions, that’s the best way. I met Alan [Alan Short, flute/alto sax] at Toulouse Lautrec, and Roberto [omnicompetent reedsman Roberto Manzin] was playing with him and I was blown away by his flute playing.”
At CLF Art Lounge in April it will be great to hear trumpeter Freddie Gavita of the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars stepping in for Rowan Porteous (Rowan is literally joining a circus!); Robert Manzin is in for alto saxophonist and flautist Alan Short. Lydian Collective’s Ida Hollis is apt to fill the musical boots of prodigious prodigal bassist Flo Moore: “Ida actually studied with me in the same year at Birmingham Conservatoire and was the original bassist who recorded on The Connection – my final project so it’s nice to come full circle as she plays on our next gig!” Tom Ridout will reprise tenor sax and electric recorder. The incredible Joe Malone is back on drums, and the group is completed by Andy Sedman on percussion… the eponymous congas!
The album was recorded during lockdown in Spacehouse Studio in Hackney over one weekend. Ryan has been performing over the years but never had the money to record. Building relations with a studio engineer resulted in the two days’ studio time in which they recorded the album. “Lockdown”, he says, “presented both difficulties and benefits.” Recording was essentially the first time the six musicians played together. Listening to such an accomplished result, it seems astonishing not only that it was recorded in two days, but that they rehearsed using Jamulus, the real-time online collaboration tool.
“It was a bizarre way of working but was the only way we could play together as musicians without there being any lag across the internet. After watching a video by Christian McBride where they explored a way of working with a similar piece of software called JackTrip, we had a go and it worked as long as someone was able to set up the server which is what Joe our drummer managed to do. We proposed to Flo the idea so that we could get the rhythm section tight and she agreed to give it a shot. I barely knew Flo at this point but soon became acquainted and found out about some interesting lockdown gigs she was doing at Kansas Smitty’s including performing a Weather Report Heavy Report album gig and Herbie Hancock Thrust album gig!”
It’s been tough going but they’ve done pretty well without a record label this far, with repeat plays on BBC Introducing, LondonLive and BBC Berkshire, album of the month on Indie Soul Radio, the cover of US magazine Indie Post, and positive reviews in Jazzwise and Totally Wired Radio. He has tunes written ready for another album as well as three more vocal tracks waiting in the wings in addition to the two already released. “We’re trying to get some more gigs lined up, ideally some festivals. We’d like to release another album but we ran out of money!”
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff: ajdehany.co.uk
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LINKS: Cong-Fusion website