Renee Katz: Winter Awakenings

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Renee Katz

Winter Awakenings


March 11, 2022

Reviewed by John Hoglund

Renee Katz is a prolific musical storyteller. She brings her lyric soprano to this album of beautiful arrangements by John Cook that is highlighted by Maury Yeston’s “December Songs.” Like other recent albums, this is one artist’s response to the pandemic, the quarantine, and the emergence from it, all lovingly expressed in songs that have a winter theme. The result is a buoyant album of heartfelt songs.

The arc of Katz’s album suggests a musical and ethereal journey that expands from simple faith through a dark night of the soul. It is ultimately a persuasive affirmation of lost-and-found optimism. This is accomplished through truthful phrasing on well-chosen gems. The disc opens with a tender reading of the classic “Deep Purple,” which sets a tone of loneliness. Here, she delicately caresses the lyric and its classically tinged melody. The lyrics telling of a sorrowfully reflective love suits her vocal style perfectly. It is a refreshing treat on a melody composed by Pete De Rose in 1934 that took off when Mitchell Parrish added the trenchant lyrics in 1939. It became a hit for such artists of the day as Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey and, in 1975 for Donny and Marie Osmond. It has also been recorded by iconic jazz artists including Nat King Cole. The song is challenging with its desolate phrasing, but to Katz’s credit, she does a fine job interpreting its dense lyrics as one might expect to hear from a throaty Carmen McRae or the “baritone” of Sarah Vaughan.

The set list is dominated by suites of the pensive poems by Yeston called “December Songs.” Based on Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” (a song cycle of art songs), the romantic poems are a sequence of the reflections of a jilted singer who is adrift and walking in the winter, looking back on lost loves, and ultimately falling apart. Yeston’s setting is snowy Central Park (rather than Schubert’s Vienna woods). Katz is most effective on such longing images recalling the late Barbara Cook who adjusted her classical training to suit contemporary, pop, and theater singing and told a story with veracity and heart. Renee Katz has the same qualities; that is her strength. For example, listen to her sing the plaintive “December Snow” and sing, “No one really knew me then, no one knows me now/things were so much different then.” Add to that the touching “Please Let’s Not Even Say Hello,” which says “I’m just not good at letting go,” and “By the River,” which whispers “Come to me and be my close companion/here in my arms you will cry no more.” We are hearing a singer evoking testaments of simplicity, self-reliance and, above all, truth.

It’s not all melancholy here. Katz shines on a bubbly, upbeat “Where Are You Now?” and Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” which is given a beguiling treatment. It’s a delight to hear Noël Coward’s contemplative rarity, “Come the Wild, Wild Weather.” A bonus track of the elated “Someday” by Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz from Disney’s animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a perfect wrap-up to the disc, as it addresses optimism in a plea in the midst of the chaos we’ve all been through over the past two years. Katz’s inspired phrasing evokes the hope that is needed for facing an uncertain future.

Renee Katz is a singer on the rise and this album shows her to be an exceptional vocalist who delivers her songs with a genuine softness that is at times as powerful as it is driving. Not enough can be said for John Cook’s piano accompaniment, arrangements, and musical direction throughout this quality disc. A serious nod also goes to Alon Bisk for his ethereal cello. 

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.