Happy New Year, everyone! Like all of us, I was astounded while watching the recent run of shows Trey and friends put on at The Beacon Theatre. It meant so much to us, and you could see how deeply it affected Trey on a personal level. Yet while watching, it seemed like that was only part of the story. The other musicians contributing were equal parts of this grand adventure. How did they come to be a part of this run? How did it make them feel? Besides being able to work and play music again, how did it affect them on an emotional level to be a part of something so unique and special?
I decided to try and find out. I reached out to Katie Kresek – violinist in the Rescue Squad – who graciously agreed to answer some questions on the topic. Hope you enjoy what she had to say as much as I did!
Stay safe and healthy and cheers to 2021!!!
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DB: How long have you been playing the violin?
KK: I've been playing since the age of five. I come from a long line of professional and amateur musicians, many of whom played the violin.
DB: Have you played with rock n roll musicians in concerts before?
KK: Definitely. I've spent most of my career playing for songwriters and with a variety of musical artists either on tour or in recording studios. There is a full bio of the artists I've worked with on my website, but some favorites include David Byrne, St. Vincent, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Adele, and Diana Krall. I also play on Broadway, which incorporates many different musical styles into the mix.
DB: What is it like playing with a small group of classical musicians alongside other instruments vs a full orchestra?
KK: In the Beacon Jams, we functioned as a string quartet the entire time, except for the Ghosts of the Forest show where we were doubled in size. I love small groups because of the intimacy there, and because with one person on a part, I feel more part of a dialogue where each person has their own voice. I also enjoy orchestral music quite a lot - there is something very special about the power of a full orchestral sound. I grew up playing classical music, so have been fortunate enough to get to sit in a section playing orchestral masterworks by great composers, but I also grew up with a very heavy influence of short-form songs of all types: folk music, art song, and world choral music. I particularly love how a string quartet is voiced like a choir, with the violins as the soprano and alto, and the viola and cello as the tenor and bass. There's a lot of potential in that set up; we can all take on different characters for a really complex arrangement, or we can play in unison to add strength to a certain line. Something I loved about playing Don Hart's wonderful arrangements for the shows is that he really knows how to write beautifully for the string quartet, and his arrangements are intricate and endlessly interesting.
DB: How did you and the other musicians come to be part of The Beacon Jams? Who contacted you and when? What was your initial reaction?
KK: Our main connection to the project is through Jeff Tanski, who Maxim, Rachel, and myself all play with regularly on Broadway in the show Moulin Rouge. I was thrilled when I got the call from Jeff first because he's one of the best colleagues I've ever had. He is widely admired and respected for everything he brings to a project: not only his incredible playing but also his skills as a music director and arranger - so just to hear from him was a pleasure. Second, this has been such a devastating time for the music industry as nearly all of our work has been cancelled due to the pandemic, so of course I was thrilled to find out that Trey was making this amazing effort not only to raise money for The Divided Sky Foundation, but also to get music to his community of fans, fans who were so desperately missing him through such a difficult time. And then finally, I've been a fan of Trey's for a while, mostly because of the profound influence he's had on many of my favorite musicians and friends.
DB: Had you played with your fellow Rescue Squad musicians before?
KK: Yes. I've known Rachel since high school - we played in the same Youth Symphony together! Maxim and Anja went to college together, and we all know each other mainly from recording projects and our work as freelancers in New York City. Something we all share is a deep love of working with songwriters, so this project was perfect for us.
DB: Was the name "Rescue Squad" coined onstage that first night by Trey, or was it discussed beforehand?
KK: I think Trey said it rather spontaneously during the first show we played. It might have been after "Wolfman's Brother," but I confess that now I can't quite remember!
DB: What did you know about Trey and his music before joining? Had you ever seen Phish or TAB before?
KK: I had never been to a Phish show, but I feel as though I can't remember a time when I didn't know the band. I mostly heard their music starting in high school and college, and I have some dear friends who are really devoted. My husband has even been to several shows! Another example is one of my favorite violinists in the world, Matthew Szemela. He and I went to school together and then started our "grown up" careers working with different artists, and he always talked about Phish and Trey specifically for years, and how Phish helped him to rekindle his own personal artistry and relationship to music. There is a palpable magic I experience when listening to him tell stories of all the shows he went to, and the influence they had. He's one of my favorite violinists because of his deep artistry and fluency with so many different styles - he just loves music of every kind and is fascinated and inspired by all of it - so I really understood full-circle when we started playing with Trey exactly what he was talking about. That's one of my favorite experiences to have come out of this.
DB: Were you given specific past live versions of the songs to listen to and learn from or did you go strictly by the sheet music and rehearsals?
KK: Much of what we did included new arrangements, but yes, we did hear recordings of past shows in order to become familiar with the tunes, and of course getting to rehearse was an opportunity to really get in there and work on them. Something I really admire about Trey is how in the moment he is in terms of what the music is calling for. It was really inspiring to watch him revisit these songs (that all clearly have their own histories and meanings) with the Rescue Squad added, and consider how our presence would change the overall approach in order to create something new.
DB: How often did you all rehearse together?
KK: We would start our process weekly by getting the songs, learning them on our own through both sheet music and recordings, and then, following our Covid tests, we would rehearse in person but six feet apart and while wearing masks.
DB: What were some of the Covid safety protocols? And how did it make the process more challenging?
KK: We had Covid tests, wore masks for rehearsals, had temperature checks before entering the spaces, and then of course there was a ton of sanitizing provided. I didn't feel it was challenging at all, and I was grateful to feel as though everyone involved was committed to health and safety first.
DB: Did you need to change anything about your own style of playing to accommodate these songs?
KK: Well, in many ways, it's the string player's (and probably any good side person's) job to be flexible and respond to whatever the musical circumstances require. I think Trey is super encouraging of all the musicians he works with for them to be their best selves and do what they do. He's very attuned to his band in that way, so the whole environment is one where it just feels like everyone is cheering each other on, but in a really grounded way where it's not gratuitous, just genuine.
DB: What was the funniest moment for you?
KK: Probably talking about spatchcocking my Thanksgiving turkey on the mic during the last show! Also, when Trey did the Vincent Price bit at the end of "Guyute" - I'm still laughing about how clever that was.
DB: Did you perform any songs that you particularly loved?
KK: I think "YEM" holds the crown just because it was amazing to start a show with it, and it takes so many twists and turns. I also loved the way it was just the strings and Jeff and Trey for a bit, and then the BVs enter and it just kept building and building to an epic jam, but then it closes in this really ethereal way. That was also super special for me because I'm a big fan of Jo Lampert's, and having her along was just amazing, as were all the singers. I think it's one of my favorite things that I've ever done, to be honest! "Brian and Robert" also felt particularly special, and "What's the Use?". I think as the TAB horns joined us, it was also really incredible to be able to work with them, so some of the tunes like "Harry Hood," "Goodbye Head," and "Petrichor" were all pretty thrilling to play with them. I also really loved the Ghosts of the Forest show, so the sound of the doubled section with those songs was just beautiful.
DB: Which songs were the most fun to learn?
DB: Were any songs difficult to learn?
KK: Most fun and most difficult would probably go to "Guyute" - it really had some challenging moments for me on the first violin part, plus it's just really fast and kind of a wild ride.
DB: Did any songs seem awkward during rehearsal, but suddenly came to life onstage?
KK: Ha - maybe not the songs, but me?
DB: Was there any improvisation at your end or did you all stick with the sheet music that Don wrote?
KK: We definitely had a lot of opportunities for extended jams. Some things are written out, but other times not.
DB: Was the sheet music constantly being tweaked during rehearsals up until the actual performance?
KK: Sure - that's not unusual. Also, I think it's important to note that sheet music's only purpose is to communicate as much about what needs to be done in as efficient a manner as possible, but it's not an end-all-be-all of a tune when it comes to the show. It's similar to an actor's script; it's there for structure, but the best written scores are ones that leave space for interpretation.
DB: What moments really stood out for you during the performances?
KK: I think hearing the feedback from the people who were watching at home was just incredible. Trey would read messages from people who were just starting their roads to sobriety, who had tuned in and reached out to connect, and he would respond with such earnestness to each one. Knowing that this music was speaking to them was pretty humbling, because they're going through more than just the pandemic that we're all experiencing. As I was reading messages from everyone, I could see that having these shows was a real lifeline for people. It was a way to remind us all of our connections to one another, and how we can be there for one another in hard times. I've heard Trey talk about the word "Beacon" as more than a venue, but also as a symbol for anyone feeling lost in the dark. I get really overwhelmed when I think about how these concerts might have helped people by being a way to experience this art together again. We've all lost a lot this year - loved ones, jobs, hope - maybe some have lost their sense of purpose, or their routines, or they've lost just being together with their friends. Seeing the community of love that has been built around Trey's music and spirit was probably the real stand out for me.
DB: I could have sworn there were times when you and others seemed to get a bit teary at the feeling of the music at hand.
KK: I'm sure that's true. I think playing with other musicians is everything for us, and I know that getting to play music together was something none of us were expecting, especially now. I can't think of any other feeling that is as exciting or moving as playing music with friends.
DB: At what point did you realize just how big a deal this was for you all, Trey and the community of fans?
KK: Definitely seeing the Twitch feed of comments during the show, and then seeing all the feedback when bits of the show were shared online. It really hit me how bonded the community is, and how open they were to hearing the music re-imagined for these shows.
DB: The fact that you all were able to do this during a global pandemic was such an amazing accomplishment. On an emotional level, what did it mean to you and your fellow musicians being able to do something like this during this time?
KK: I think we went into each day not taking anything for granted - whether that was each other, or the music, or the opportunity to be part of this cause. It meant a lot to see how this particular creative family worked together to make this project happen, and then seeing how it impacted so many people just as a musical event, while also raising money to help people in recovery just felt like one of those situations where everyone benefits. I never imagined I would get to perform at all during the pandemic, and I'm so grateful to the fans who let us know how much this meant to them. So on a personal level, it helped me immensely. I can't really speak for my Rescue Squad colleagues, except to say that we came out of it really thinking about what more we can do as a quartet together. I'm super happy to say that we've decided to launch our own quartet project and keep playing together as much as possible!
DB: What’s next on the horizon for you in the world of music?
KK: It looks like most live performances will remain shuttered at least through the spring if not the summer, so as the vaccines roll out, I'll be continuing to record from my home and occasionally in the studio when possible. I'm also looking forward to the Tony awards, whenever they eventually happen. I think those will be a bright spot in what has been such a dark year for our community. Maxim, Rachel, Anja, and I are also busy with our new quartet. I also teach classes for two universities, and I'm able to do that online and also teach violin and coach musicians over Zoom and FaceTime privately.
[Thank you Katie and David for this wonderful interview. -Ed.]
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