Saturday, May 29, 2010

Benny & Doc's healing musical journey

Everyone knows medicine usually leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but not the concoction cooked up on “Father & Son Playing for Small Change,” a new four-song EP by Doc Zig and Benny Z — otherwise known around the Port as Jim (father) and Benny (son) Zanfagna. (That would be pronounced zan-fawn-nya.) No, this stuff is pretty sweet. You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to make this go down. But what a strange concoction this is. Just get a load of the active ingredients, the flavors: folk, country blues, reggae, jazz. And the instrumentation: acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, flute, saxophone, congas. Nope, this isn’t traditional music, not exactly. It’s Americana realized through a filter of reggae and jazz. Or is it the other way around? And, obviously, it’s not actually medicine, so probably not a good idea to send the receipt to your HMO, but the project is an elixir of sorts, a home cure that combines the healing qualities of music and the physical therapy that comes along with playing it — soothing the savage breast while, for example, goosing neural pathways — as part of recovery. “It’s literally medicinal,” says Benny Z. Which is why they named their publishing company Making Music Medicine Productions. 

But, wait a minute. What exactly is the problem with these guys? They look like perfectly normal, healthy specimens, and the sound “Small Change,” which will be released officially in early June, doesn’t seem to be hurting in any noticeable way. But the past decade has been a pretty bumpy ride for both father and son. Benny, 28, was sidelined by a stroke triggered by a head injury he received in a collegiate hockey scrimmage nine years ago. He was 19 years old. The stroke left him partially paralyzed on the left side. He has battled back and, to the casual observer, has no immediately obvious problems, although he still suffers from residual effects. Right about the same time, Doc. Zig, his father, broke his wrist, trouble enough for a guitarist, then developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a neurological syndrome that sidelined him, musically, for close to a decade — literally, until he started working on “Small Change” with his son. “It’s one of the most therapeutic things in the world,” he says. And not only does playing help as physical therapy for fine motor skills, it also has an important psychological effect, helping you through the hard times, says Benny Z. “Everybody makes or listens to or dances to music. It’s a universal language. Everybody speaks that language.”

Benny has been playing music since he was a kid, playing guitar and piano, until switching to tenor and soprano sax. He drew inspiration from Stevie Wonder and, especially, from Bob Marley (“Every situation in life Bob Marley has a song. He lulls you awake,” he says.) But the “real” education came over the fence — from the Olive Street home of local jazz standout Johnny Battis. “He was a major influence.” He also played with Endway, a Boston-based punk-tinged emo band, for about a year, taking the band in a different direction, pumping up the R&B/soul factor, while maintaining a pop feel. His father started out as a rocker, and played in a local band called The Revelites, but ditched his custom Gibson ES335 electric for an acoustic Martin D35 as a college student, beginning his long exploration of roots music and indulging his fascination with all things acoustic — mandolin, fiddle, resonators. He’s probably best known for his 1990s collaboration with Port guitarist Charlie Archer, whom he describes as “a walking museum of the country blues.”

Benny wrote the material for “Small Change” over the past year, in the wake of his departure from Endway, before turning it over to his father — “my only real trusted musical partner,” he says — for tweaking. Overall, the album is a celebration of life, and a call to arms. “River” is joyous, upbeat, and is all about counting blessings. “Along the Way” is poppy, blusey, a negotiation with redemption. “Service,” with its folky feel, is a call to reach out to others. And the impossibly catchy, Islands-inspired “Run Run,” like the other songs with a hopeful vibe, is about celebrating what we have, the good stuff always getting overshadowed by bad stuff in life. “The music derived from a place of serenity,” says Benny Z. “Lyrically, it’s like opening up a personal diary. It helps me with daily reminders. They’re stern messages from me to me.”

The album was mixed and mastered at Roger Ebacher’s Rebach Studios. Ebacher, who just released his third album with Air Department, his new band, plays congas on the album. Crazy Maggy alum Mike Gruen plays bass. It was essentially a live -to-disc session.

“The music just welled up,” says Benny Z, who plays guitar, tenor and soprano sax on the album.

“Welled up?” says Doc. Zig.” It was pouring.”

The official release date for “Small Change” is June 1, but it’s already available on iTunes and the usual online distributors and on their website. There’s no “official” record release party, but they’ll be playing around town through the summer. You’ll probably see them on the Boardwalk this weekend, as the Port descends into endless festival season. It’s the first in a flurry of activity for the band. They’ve also released a new single, “Cherry Hill,” which is available for free for the next couple of weeks on their web (if you sign up for their mailing list). They have also just posted a video of the full band. They’re also planning on bringing out some of the tracks from Doc Zig’s “Live in the Moment,” an album he recorded (but never officially released) eight years ago. That album dovetails nicely with the current project: The music was inspired by his brother-in-law’s struggle with thyroid cancer, using media and music as a way to help heal. The duo will also be opening for Liz Frame and the Kickers July 23 at the Blue Mermaid in Portsmouth. This fall, Exit Dance Theatre is planning a program that will include a new dance set to Zig and Z’s “Run, Run, Run,” and a direct collaboration between Exit and the duo is in the works. “This,” says Benny Z. “is the beginning of something much bigger than us.”

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