Jazz Fest review: Kurt Elling commands the stage at the Miller Center

Kurt Elling just doesn't make a song his own. He dissects it, modifies it, examines it under a microscope then reassembles it in a way that reassures you of the song's origins but suggests, oh so subtly, that this is something new altogether.
The scatting baritone artfully commanded the stage with a generous handful of these inventions Saturday night at the Miller Center for the Arts as part of the Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest.

One of Elling's signature talents is his vocalese, taking a tune, in one case Duke Ellington's “I Like the Sunrise” and adding lyrics not written for the song. Using words of the 13th century poet Rumi and Von Freeman's improvised melody based on Ellington's, he produced an astonishing new work that crossed millennia.

In the 1963 Drifters hit “On Broadway,” Elling's baritone became a vocal theremin, an early electronic instrument that produces eerie sounds filmmakers are fond of, and played it against John McLean's achingly plaintive guitar, which echoed, courted and challenged Elling's voice. The song took off from there, exploding into a series of sonic collisions, led largely by Kendrick Scott's propulsive drumming.

Elling's band did more than back him. Halfway through the 80-minute set, and in the spirit of a night of making and remaking music, pianist Laurence Hobgood led a trio consisting of bassist Clark Sommers and Scott in a fiendishly sprawling version of Romberg and Hammerstein's “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” that had Hobgood's piano sounding like an orchestra and put the trio in overdrive, the familiar morphing into something new for a few bars, then returning to home turf.

Elling can scat like no other (except, maybe, the late Betty Carter) and he brought Carter's spirit back for “Samurai Cowboy,” a tune by Marc Johnson and lyrics by Elling. Sommers soloed magnificently.

The great jazz historian Ira Gitler once described the music of alto saxophonist Jackie McLean this way: “Cut a hole in your heart and let the night pour in.” Elling and his band – tight, polished, fierce – welcomed the heart of the night in song after song, even when the sun was shining.

The evening began with the Kutztown University Jazz Ensemble I, which provided a 50-minute walk through jazz history. The talented 18-piece orchestra sizzled in numbers by, among others, Frank Foster, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, George Gershwin and Sonny Stitt.