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Some singers grab you as much — maybe more — through their music than their voice. Take Kristiana Roemer. Born in Germany, educated in Europe and the United States, and seasoned as a jazz singer in Brooklyn, Roemer has a warm, lovely voice, phrases intelligently and knows how to float a sustained, quiet high note without strain. But you’re as likely to be taken with her unusual arrangements, the room she makes for her superb players, and her eclectic material. Put it this way: How many singers would choose to end a song with a guitar solo?
That’s exactly what Roemer does on the title track to House of Mirrors, her debut album, with a coda by guitarist Gilad Hekselman. Other artistic choices make Roemer stand out. Though mostly sung in English, these nine tracks include two adaptations of German poems — one by Herman Hesse, the other by the German-Jewish Holocaust martyr Felice Schragenheim. Yet another is Roemer’s interpretation of John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul,” which ends with a spoken-word delivery of Roemer’s own poem, “Home.”
All that said, this is clearly a jazz record. Schragenheim’s “Deine Hände” (“Your Hands”) is recognizably a jazz love ballad in any language, and it’s a sure bet that few have ever imagined “Dark Night of the Soul” swinging like this — tastefully, with Addison Frei’s gently propulsive piano figures, melodic embellishment from guitarist Ben Monder, and Roemer’s short poem intoned over the closing music. The Hesse song, “Manchmal” (“Sometimes”), is another deftly turned jazz ballad, with bassist Alex Claffy and drummer Adam Arruda completing the core trio with Frei. Other appealing idiosyncrasies appear throughout: the way Roemer weaves her voice wordlessly through the ensemble on her “Lullaby for N.”; the trip-hoppy beats of “Beauty Is a Wound,” with bass-drum inflections by percussionist Rogerio Boccato; and her introspective lyrics, as on the title song (“My reflections are moving in nearer/As I stand here/In my house of mirrors”). But then there is the familiar medium-tempo Latin groove of “Virgin Soil” and Roemer’s arrangement of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” — both with tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens — and a version of the Charles Mingus beauty “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” that would probably make its composer smile.
— Jon Garelick