Professor of trumpet at the University of Maryland School of Music, Chris Gekker is a master of his instrument. Previously, Gekker was a member of the famous American Brass Quintet for some 18 years as well as principal trumpet of the Orchestra of St Luke’s. His technique is impeccable: The Metier recording is so clear one can hear every detail of attack, and one would hear every smudged slur (if there were any—that suggestion is hypothetical). In addition, there is a real musical intelligence at work, here coupled with a fervent belief in the music he plays.
Written for trumpet and piano, Robert Gibson’s short piece Fall (2016) doubles as a reflection both on autumn and on Wayne Shorter’s composition, itself in turn a reflection on the Miles Davis Quintet’s recording of Nefertiti. The atmosphere is beautifully laid back; it is easy not to notice the way Gekker hits the exact center of each note in his smoky musings.
Composed in 1993, Lance Hulme’s 12-minute Ghost Dialogues is a work Gekker has lived with for a number of years. Scored for the classic jazz combo of trumpet and tenor sax, it won the Grand Prize of the International Trumpet Guild. Each movement bears a title: “Adieu, adieu, remember me” from Hamlet; “Dammi la mano in pegno” from Don Giovanni; “It goes so fast” from Our Town. There’s pretty much a telepathic link between Gekker and saxophonist Chris Vadala; when they interact in near pitch proximity in the first movement, it is akin to hearing one person emote. The second panel quotes from act II of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in its title, while the final “It goes so fast” contains some of the most impossibly delicately shaded sax playing on disc. Hulme also contributes the 2015 piece The Street has Changed for trumpet with mezzo and offstage piano (the latter here played by the composer). This piece is incredibly haunting, the trumpet counterpointing and commenting on the mournful vocal line; the sense of just the two of them seems to ache with loneliness. Gekker describes the opportunity of recording with O’Brien’s voice as “a gift beyond measure,” and one can appreciate that might well be heartfelt. The offstage piano in the final movement, “(Echoes),” could possibly be placed further back in the sound picture but is effective nonetheless; the trumpet’s muted contributions add to the sense of emotional distancing. The poem is by Randall Jarrell. Hulme’s piece was premiered in 2015, and near to where the poet lived for much of his life.
Again, there is a long connection between Gekker and the Cooman work. Gekker’s description of the piece as “If there ever was a ‘viola sonata’ conceived for trumpet, this is it” is spot-on. The concentration on the middle register of the trumpet is what gave rise to the comment, as one can hear clearly in the first movement, “Sun Horizon.” The sudden barren musical language of “Dream Walking” comes as something of a surprise. Certainly, if Cooman’s intention was to be arresting, he succeeds; the music settles, though, into a more comfortable, even cocooned, harmonic/melodic space where Gekker’s impeccable legato pays huge dividends. That central movement is an in memoriam to composer Brian Fennelly; the breathless finale (“Moon Mysteries”) is superbly performed by Gekker and Sloan.
Another piece for trumpet and tenor sax is provided by David Heinick (b. 1954). His Served Two Ways celebrates another connection, as Heinick and Gekker were classmates at Eastman in the mid-1970s and often performed as a duo back then. Heinick’s piece is wonderfully, playfully diffuse. On the surface more advanced in language than its bedfellows, this very sense of play from the present performance actually enables it to emerge as remarkably approachable; as the music moves closer and closer to a jazzy feel, the sense of adventure just increases. This must be great fun to experience live; one can imagine how much performers could make of it in terms of body language.
Finally, Kevin McKee’s Song for a Friend is another in memoriam, this time for John Wacker, a distinguished trumpeter and teacher tragically killed in a car accident. Commissioned by a group of colleagues and former students, Song for a Friend is a most poignant way to close the disc—tender, tonal and emotionally true.
This is a most varied recital, then, caught in superb sound. In addition, I will willingly scoop up anything Gekker records. The combination of technique, taste, and musicianship is remarkable.