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Blending talents refines artistry

The top-notch jazz vocals of local favorite Fred Johnson will blend with the funky pop-jazz of nationally acclaimed saxophonist Richard Elliot on Sunday night to close this year's festival.

They have been performing together since last year when Elliot, who now lives in Brandon, asked Johnson to join his band. The combination should be a favorite for area jazz enthusiasts who have long placed Johnson at the top of the local talent charts.

"He's the voice from God," said Frank Spina, program director for the jazz festival. "He's the biggest name in that whole festival."

Of the two, Elliot, 32, has the wider claim to fame. His seventh in a series of successful recordings will be released in January. The recording will be the first for Fred Johnson. While many consider Johnson the best jazz vocalist in the Tampa Bay area, he is relatively unknown nationally.

For Johnson, the opportunity to perform with Elliot could launch a solo career and catapult him to greater fame. But the match also is helping Elliot, whose recordings sometimes have been criticized for weak vocals.

"Occasionally, Fred will thank me for taking him on the road," Elliot said. "I tell him, "Hey, you're just making me look good.'

"

Elliot's brand of music often has been compared to contemporary jazz artist Kenny G.

He refined his art while playing as lead saxophonist for the horn-strong Tower of Power from 1982 to 1987. Before that, he played behind the Four Tops, the Temptations, Melissa Manchester, Smokey Robinson and Rick Springfield.

Elliot prefers to call what he does "contemporary instrumental music" rather than jazz. Although jazz is a strong influence on his music, it also contains elements of Latin music and rhythm and blues.

Spina, the festival's program director, said that in past years Elliot would not have been invited to perform since the festival has concentrated on traditional jazz. But this year, the festival is reaching out to a wider range of musicians. That, and the fact that Elliot now is working with Johnson, earned him a spot, Spina said.

Johnson is known for his wide-ranging voice and versatility. A trained mime, he can vocalize impressions of the slide trombone and flute.

He also is trained in theater arts and recently created a show for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center that featured 35 children.

Johnson, who works as assistant coordinator for youth sports at the Tampa Housing Authority, has played in every Clearwater Jazz Holiday except for last year.

SUNDAY

Richard Elliot and Fred Johnson

at 8 p.m.

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