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Last night's Holiday Concert at the Sunset Temple by Steph Johnson, a singer, songwriter and guitarist with seemingly unlimited potential, was a prime example of an emergent artist spreading her wings.

Two years ago, Ms. Johnson was working at a local bank, checking identification, wishing folks a great day, and, no doubt, warming hearts with her radiant smile.

Then the recession hit, and she made the decision to devote herself to singing and playing guitar full-time, and SD music lovers are all the richer for it.

Johnson has been making waves locally, winning an SDMA for "best jazz" album in 2010, even though she acknowledges that "Mysterious Feminine," wasn't exactly a real jazz record. The music she's been making is really a kind of soul-blues fusion with jazzy overtones and an emphasis on original material.

Whatever you want to call it, Johnson has one hell of a voice. It is smoky, sultry and powerful. She was raised listening to Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway. Not a bad set of influences.

She has flawless pitch, and the ability to transform a lyric into an emotional experience. She can get gritty and almost gravelly, and her range seems to navigate the space between someone like Cassandra Wilson and, maybe Etta James.

Johnson normally performs with the Steph Johnson Band, and she could easily stay on that track and achieve accolades far outside the local realm. With a voice like hers-- the rest of her intangible assets like striking beauty; a commanding stage presence, and an already loyal following, are all, money-in-the-bank.

She has chosen, though, at this stage of career, to widen her musical horizons by collaborating with local jazz heavyweights Rob Thorsen, on double bass and Richard Sellers on drums.

Saturday's concert at Sunset Temple was the first public performance of this unit. The choice to play with just her guitar as the harmonic generator was a brave one. Playing the guitar while singing is a difficult task, but Johnson has the art of accompanying herself down to a science, one that she seems quite comfortable with.

The trio opened with a very up-tempo reading of "Christmas Song," that swung quite nicely, although the ending was kind of sloppy. The next piece, a Johnson original, "Why Don't He," was much more successful, her rich alto soaring around the contours of the melody, while keeping it real with bluesy inflections.

The standard "East Of The Sun," was that first standout moment in which everything jelled. Interpreted as a bossa nova groove with a languid tempo as slow as dripping honey, the results were twice as sweet. Johnson's guitar work locked in with Thorsen's pulse and the astonishingly creative drums of Sellers for a telling idea of where the singer's future might lead.

"Chocolate Situation," was a blues vamp with a bridge that solicited a show-stopping solo from Thorsen, who slapped his bass with the bow like he was swatting ants off the strings. Johnson followed with soulful scatting that morphed into growling melisma minus the "American Idol" histrionics.

Thorsen began another Johnson original, "Big Life," with a highly melodic bass vamp that set up a lock-step groove which Johnson poured her heart out over. This will be on her next record, and it's one of her best tunes.

After a brief intermission, Johnson and Thorsen returned for the second highlight moment of the evening: an absolutely stunning duet on George Shearing's "Lullaby Of Birdland." Thorsen keeps time like a Swiss watch, and together, they created an artfully swinging arrangement strong enough to elicit finger-snaps on "2" and "4" from the audience.

"Christmas Eve," another new Johnson piece, is a poignant ballad in a minor key, that served as a stark reminder that the holiday's are more than some people can bear. Not a happy piece, but an honest one, and a testament to the creative mind of the songwriter.

"Hi-Ya," must be one of Johnson's hits, because the audience erupted when the tune began. It's kind of a glorious celebration, made even more so with Thorsen's muscular bass lines, and the percussive contributions of Sellers, who kept the music surging forward .

It wasn't all perfect. Johnson's guitar work has yet to reach a par with her amazing voice--but that will come, and if she stays true to this widening of her oeuvre, there's no telling where she can take this. As it was, this performance was a tantalizing glimpse of things to come from an unreal talent.

Photo courtesy of Catie Stephens

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