Claus Ogerman – “Zorba” (1968)

“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die/ Life is how the time goes by,” – “Life Is” from Zorba.

After a brief – and remarkably unsuccessful – stint on RCA Records, running the gamut of pop genres during the mid-sixties, the German arranger, composer and bandleader Claus Ogerman (1930-2016) was mysteriously recruited to helm an instrumental recording of the then-recent Broadway musical Zorbá.

Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel, but largely informed by the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, Zorbá made its Broadway debut in November 1968, at about the same time as the original cast and Ogerman’s albums were released.

The music was composed by John Kander (b. 1927) with lyrics by Fred Ebb (1928-2004), collaborators who began working together in 1962. Their first full-fledged musical, Flora the Red Menace (1965), served as Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut. The duo’s next production, Cabaret (1966) – also with Minelli and Joel Grey, who would both reprise their roles in the 1972 film version – brought them, perhaps, one of the writers’ most notable and greatest acclaim.

(As of this writing, Eddie Redmayne and Gayle Rankin are bringing Cabaret back to Broadway.)

Kander and Ebb’s 1975 musical, Chicago, ran for over 900 performances and became an even bigger hit when it was revived on Broadway in 1996 (the 2002 film version was also a huge hit). The writing team contributed four songs to the Martin Scorsese film New York, New York (1977), starring Liza Minelli and Robert DeNiro, including the title number, the duo’s best-known song and a signature tune for crooner Frank Sinatra.

Kander and Ebb later penned such Broadway hits as Woman of the Year (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) and Fosse (1999).

Zorbá was produced and directed by Broadway legend Harold Prince (1928-2019), who also performed those duties on the original Cabaret, and played to mostly positive notices: Frank Rich called it “that triumph” that Cabaret was not (!) while New York Times critic Clive Barnes said Zorbá was “very sophisticated,” “stylish” and the best Broadway musical since Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and Man of La Mancha (1965), adding, with a weird bit of snark, “until the next one comes along” (Barnes, too, disapproved of the “tinsel tastelessness” of Cabaret).

The musical was surely a success, but a middling one compared to the later of work of Messrs. Kander, Ebb and Prince. Zorbá ran with Herschel Bernardi in the lead for 305 performances in 1968-69 and was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Direction, but won only one, for Best Scenic Design. The musical was revived in 1983, starring Anthony Quinn, the Zorba of the 1964 film, and again in 2015 with John Turturro in the lead.

(The Italian genre-film favorite Fabio Testi starred in a Spanish version of the musical in 2003.)

Claus Ogerman’s instrumental take on Zorba (Capitol ST-119 – note the missing accent) was issued in November 1968, a month before the original cast album (Capitol SO-118) appeared. It’s not exactly clear why someone like Ogerman, then an arranger-for-hire, would have been chosen for a record like this – or why he would have accepted such an offer.

But he brings a rich, musically well-informed magic to a score that frankly lacks much in the way of memorable music…at least music that withstands the scrutiny of appreciation outside of the theater.

At the time, Ogerman was best known – or, at least, most-appreciated – for his deft and dreamy settings on a number of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s greatest and most well-known recordings on the Verve, Warner Bros., Reprise and A&M/CTI labels. But it was producer Creed Taylor who initially evinced this particular talent of Ogerman’s; he had previously been known mostly as an arranger for pop music at the time.

Ogerman had also previously recorded composer Mikis Theodorakis’ theme to the 1964 film Zorba the Greek as the b-side to an earlier RCA single. and had also recorded an underrated instrumental cover of the cast album Fiddler on the Roof (1964 – a musical, coincidentally, originally produced by the aforementioned Harold Prince).

By this point, rock and pop had made instrumental covers of Broadway musicals – be they jazz or easy listening – fairly passé in music, with the notable exception of the rock musical Hair (also 1968)…which might help explain why almost no one knows about this record.

But Zorba may well be the first album by Claus Ogerman that sounds like a Claus Ogerman record.

Ogerman’s Zorba, for the most part, is a much better-than-average easy-listening experience, benefiting greatly by Ogerman’s musical ingeniousness and the original material’s lack of familiarity. To these ears, Ogerman enhances the sparseness of the original program by wisely draining it of its folk tropes – a sort of de-Greek-ing, if you will – in favor of gentler, more contemporary rhythms.

In addition to his sumptuous orchestrations, Ogerman’s airy instrumentation relies on lots of flutes, strings and a jazzy array of leads such as trumpet (“Zorba”), flugelhorn (“Better than Nothing”), harmonica (“Goodbye Canavaro”) and organ (“No Boom Boom” and the Bacharach-like “The Top of the Hill”). He also pairs leads nicely, as with the electric harpsicord and flugelhorn on “Happy Birthday” (here as “Happy Birthday to Me” to dispel any confusion with the other birthday song) and classical guitar and bass flute on “Why Can’t I Speak.”

On the already-odd “The Butterfly,” Ogerman even weds his familiar surf-rock groove with a movie-of-the-week orchestration to somehow positive effect (his take on “Zorba,” the instrumental title for “Life Is,” is likewise a bit over the top, reminding this listener of “The Wedding March” as heard in the 1979 comedy The In Laws).

The album’s highlights are surely the more Brazilian (!)-oriented numbers: the gorgeous “The First Time” (here as “For the First Time,” for some reason), the show’s closing number, “I Am Free,” and the perky “No Boom Boom,” which sounds positively Cabaret-ish in the original. “No Boom Boom,” which riffs nicely here off Edu Lobo’s “Reza” and probably doesn’t mean what you think it does, was issued as the b-side to this album’s single release of “Zorba.”

A bonus here is the spirited and catchy “Better Than Nothing,” a song that was cut prior the opening of the show – which mirrors the addition of the track “If I were a Woman” on Ogerman’s 1964 Fiddler on the Roof recording – and not heard on the original cast album. It’s also another of the album’s highlights.

“This instrumental reading of [the Kander and Ebb] score,” wrote Billboard on November 16, 1968, “smoothly and richly interpreted by Claus Ogerman, bubbles with excitement; and should prove a welcome addition to theater buffs’ collections. ‘The Butterfly,’ ‘No Boom Boom’ and the title tune are standouts,”

While Ogerman did his best, little from Zorba crossed over . “Life Is” is, perhaps the show’s best-known number, if that’s saying anything. It sometimes factors in Kander and Ebb tributes, often paired with the similarly-styled “Cabaret.” Instrumental covers of “Zorba (Life Is)” could be heard at the time by trumpeter Al Hirt and the budget-label studio group Living Marimbas – if anyone was listening.

Capitol did its part by getting some of its roster on the Kander/Ebb program: “Zorba (Love Is)” was covered by the studio band The Sounds of Our Times on an album called Hey Jude (Capitol ST-117, October 1968), while “Only Love” was covered by Nancy Wilson (on Capitol ST-148, issued January 1969) and “Why Can’t I Speak” was covered by Lou Rawls on a non-album Capitol b-side single.

Ogerman himself arranged “Only Love” and “Why Can’t I Speak,” among other then-in show tunes, for stage and screen actor and singer Gordon MacRae’s album Only Love (Capitol ST-125, released January 1969).

Zorba was the last record (nominally) credited to Claus Ogerman for nearly a decade, when Warner Bros. put out the German arranger,, conductor and composer’s most personal and superlative record to that point, Gate of Dreams (1977). The album is an appreciative nod from producer Tommy LiPuma for the great success of George Benson’s Ogerman-arranged super-hit, Breezin’ (1976). The all-star Gate of Dreams features such top-tier jazz soloists as Benson, David Sanborn, Joe Sample and Michael Brecker and an ideal showcase for Ogerman’s beautiful musicianship.

The little-known Zorba suffices nicely in that department as well.

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