Singer and composer Ute Lemper read best-selling author Paulo Coelho's Manuscript Found in Accra while on tour and was deeply moved by its contemplative questions about the endlessly inquisitive, unfolding mysteries in everyday life -- carnal, emotional, and spiritual. She was inspired to write The Nine Secrets, a song cycle, from Coelho's words, and approached him, finding him a longtime fan of her own work. She enlisted him as an enthusiastic collaborator. Lemper adds colorful resonance and immediacy to these texts, just as she did with 2014's Forever: The Love Poems of Pablo Neruda. She composed 12 melodies and pared Coelho's most essential phrases down to lyrics. Self-produced, she engages a wide variety of genres to get the songs across. Coelho's books have been translated into numerous languages, and Lemper honored that fact. Most of these tracks marry English, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and more, often within the same tune. Her New York band is appended by a cast of Middle Eastern master musicians including Dafer Tawil on quanun, ney, and percussion, and oudist Mavrothi Kontanis. Arranger Gil Goldstein also plays accordion. The celebrated Jamshied Sharifi handled the Middle Eastern string charts. The titles address specific topics in the text. "Beauty" offers lithe strings and saxophone fills, brushed snare, and hand percussion, all led by an elegant yet hooky piano straight out of prime Burt Bacharach. The tune's bridge combines American pop classicism with bossa nova. "Movimento" uses breezy MPB, contemporary jazz, and tango. Accordion and soprano saxophone trade solos and fills as Lemper's voice offers a sun-drenched reverie. Oud, ney, quanun, and bells introduce "The Story of Accra." Lemper delivers a spoken word intro before singing a modal blues that entwines with classical maqam. Coelho makes the first of two reading appearances, adding richness, mystery, and weight to the skeletal melody. Maqam-meets-nouveau chanson and theater pop in "Sex." The layering of strings, accordion, and orpharion (that adds just a touch of Moorish Renaissance flavor) makes this a set standout. "Success," with limber, funky electric piano, a woody upright bass, accordion, and Arabic hand percussion is a sensual brew of contemporary jazz, classic crossover, chamber music, and Latin-tinged cabaret. Here, Lemper is at her throaty best. "Fire" is the most theatrical track. Chanson (à la Jacques Brel), American theatrical pop, and Hanns Eisler-esque cabaret (complete with muted trombone vamps) frame Lemper's voice; she alternately croons and swaggers. Coelho returns in the brief "Paolo's Story," just before Lemper closes with another short spoken interlude. The Nine Secrets is as gorgeous as it is ambitious and exotic. On the page, Coelho's seemingly simple themes are deceptive. Lemper renders them with timbral and textural imagination, and canny cleverness. Musically rich, elegantly performed, and brilliantly arranged, this date is a high-water mark in an already distinguished catalog. Lemper's fans will be delighted. Perhaps some of the author's 200 million readers will adventure to investigate The Nine Secrets as well.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek