Album Release: Chris Gekker | Trumpet Music of Robert Levy

“A man named Bob Levy called, he’d like you to call him back about a job.”

What started as an invitation to a Summer teaching gig has turned into a life-long friendship and series of professional collaborations between Chris Gekker and Robert Levy. Trumpet Music of Robert Levy collects those strong personal connections and showcases the phenomenal compositions of Robert Levy and the exquisite playing of Chris Gekker. Joined by friends and family, each of Levy's works is presented at the highest caliber. This is a must-have for any trumpet enthusiast!

Early in his career, Chris Gekker was inspired by Robert Levy’s approach to the trumpet, not just as an artist, but as a collaborator. “I think Bob really represents what could be termed, ‘what being a musician in America means’.” Tōnsehen Manager Neil Brown sat down with Chris Gekker to learn more about this decades-long relationship and Chris’s insights on this album and the modern American trumpet player. What exudes from Chris is that spirit of collaboration drawn from Bob - one between artist and composer, artist and artist, and the continuing line of influence passed down through generations of musicians. Featured on this album is cellist Stephen Czarkowski - Chris’s frequent collaborator and treasured colleague, saxophonist Rick Humphreys - long-time friend of Chris, as well Chris’s wife, clarinetist Suzanne Gekker, and daughter, pianist Lianna Gekker.

Chris Gekker:

I met Bob while I was in college and he gave me a job - a summer job - one I was very grateful for. Bob really was like a model to me of what a musician should be - the way he interacted with composers. The idea of working with composers was something I was very much focused on and I have been really focused on that ever since. Nothing to me is more exciting than imagining what a composer's first notes will be and how they'll go from one note to the next. 

Around the time I met Bob, I was taking lessons with Gerard Schwarz who was first trumpet in the New York Philharmonic. There was something about Gerard Schwarz’s and Bob’s playing that was different. Both of them could play the trumpet in an intimate manner that was different than anything I’d ever heard. Both of them could almost whisper on their instruments. The most influential trumpet lesson I’ve ever had was Gerard Schwarz playing very softly for me and in many ways, I feel like I’ve been chasing that sound ever since. 

When I met Bob and started playing with him in his brass quintet at the summer festival, he had the same kind of conversational approach to playing trumpet. It was that sort of speechlike narrative that really caught my ear. Many years later, it’s a real delight to experience this music that he’s been composing and it reflects so much of what his musical life has been. There’s an unending curiosity, exploration of color, an interest in beautiful features - sometimes they’re quirky, sometimes very lyrical and tender. Other times it could be quite sharp and aggressive. I think the music on this CD really reflects that range of expression.

There’s a number of features on these different pieces that really draw me in as a trumpet player. There’s a section in ‘Affirmations’ where the trumpet veers into a microtonal way of playing. It’s almost like you’re viewing something through a camera and then suddenly the focus goes a little bit different and then comes back in again. ‘Reflections’ ranges from incredible outbursts of virtuosity to extremely tender folksong-like phrasing. ‘Stances’ is largely notated in an improvisational way, so it’s very fresh and different every time you play it. It’s really an amazing range of expression that Bob explores on this record, not just on the trumpet, but how a trumpet can blend and communicate with other instruments - some of them very unlikely!

Bob is a marvelously educated conductor and trumpeter who has conducted and performed all the varieties of traditional music you can imagine, and jazz is a very strong element there too. The element of improvisation is there as well - not just jazz improvisation, but the element of spontaneity and performing music that is notated, but notated in a way that gives a great deal of freedom to the performer. 

Jazz is classical music. It really is America’s classical music contribution to world culture. Bob feels this very deep in his soul, and it comes out in the unaccompanied trumpet works where the plunger mute might remind someone of Cootie Williams or earlier Bubber Miley with the early Duke Ellington Orchestra. All of this is part of the fabric of Bob’s creativity. For him, I think it’s an unconscious reflection of his life in music and it’s for us to enjoy.

For me, being an American trumpet player not only means being able to play Bach and Mahler and Stravinsky and Copland and Gershwin and to interpret the great classical works of Mozart and Haydn, it also means knowing what Duke Ellington meant. It also means knowing what Louis Armstrong meant. It also means knowing what Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker did for the music in our country, and Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. This is our American culture and I think it should be celebrated. When Bob strikes this chord that comes out of his heart, it really strikes the same with mine. It’s a real privilege to take part in that kind of music-making. I hope the music on this album will resonate with trumpet players who are looking for creative ways to play as a soloist and as a chamber musician.