Janiva Magness was tired, frazzled from a tour schedule that had her hopscotching all over the state during her recent swing through Florida. While she may be in need of some (well-deserved) time off, she never half-assed her performance on Friday at The Back Room in Boca. At the start of the show, the vocalist apologized if her pipes were rustier than the way fans may have remembered from other gigs (including the previous weekend's appearance at the NSU Blues Fest), but I didn't detect too much degrading of her powerful instrument till I tried to talk to her after the show and she could barely whisper. And it seemed like she gave her usual all-she's-got on-stage, as she belted out blues and soul and danced and shimmied along with her excellent band. This is a woman who struggled and scrapped to get where she is today (she copped back-to-back Blues Music Awards for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year in 2006 and 2007), and she's well aware that she did it one audience at a time.
Guitarist Zack Zunis proved a great foil for Magness, his tortured leads recalling West Side Chicago touchstones such as Otis Rush (a great influence on Magness) as well as a host of Texas string-benders, and he brought plenty of emotion and showmanship to his solos without ever sounding overindulgent. But for me, keyboardist Benny Yee stole the show, somehow pulling the sound of a 500-pound Hammond B3 out of a slender electric piano and working all kinds of grooves and atmosphere with his busy hands.
For her part, Magness passionately revisited tunes from her terrific new album, What Love Will Do (her debut for the Alligator label), and kicked some serious ass on Tina Turner's self-empowerment anthem "Get It, Get It," as well as Annie Lennox's "Bitter Pill" and the über-funky "That's What Love Will Make You Do." The singer must have been grateful when she spotted longtime friend and current Singer Island resident Terry Hanck in the audience, handing over the bandstand (and her band) to the honky-tonk sax master who lit it up with his Junior Walker-inspired wailing and soulful vocals and providing Magness a much-needed breather. All in all, a tremendous night.
Saturday night, I was eager to hear the Turtle Island Quartet. The string ensemble was on-hand to help South Florida Jazz celebrate its 17th anniversary at the Miniaci Performing Arts Center, not so much a stretch when you realize that TIQ has delved into the songbooks of Monk, Ellington and most recently, Coltrane on its excellent 2007 recording, A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.
I was a bit disappointed at first, as the foursome seemed to lack the passion and gravitas they exhibited in playing Trane's music, and tunes such as Cedar Walton's "Bolivia" were merely pleasant. But then, the group seemed to awaken a bit, particularly when they played violinist Mads Tolling's intriguing composition inspired by the mischeivous Norse deity Loki, and generated some sparks with a piece by Ralph Towner, of Oregon fame.
But the best was saved for last, as Turtle Island took the stage after intermission and jumped right into Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," the frisky jazz tune that opens their recording, as well. They offered a brief but lovely version of the shiver-induing love song "Naima," and invested all of the substance seemingly lacking in the first set into the Love Supreme suite of "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm." The fact that David Balakrishnan's warm, burnished tone was featured more prominently, and that cellist Mark Summer was plumbing the richer, fuller depths of his instrument, also made the second set far more rewarding.