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Like most Colorado jazz musicians with a taste for experimental sounds, multi-instrumentalist Geoff Cleveland puts food in his belly by playing mainstream and straightahead jazz in area clubs. Doing so is not a chore for him: "When I've been away from it for a while, like I have been recently, I miss the chance to just sit back and swing," he insists. But when Cleveland is making music purely from his heart, without worrying about commercial considerations, the results can be inspirational.
Such is the case with Only a Test, a self-produced, self-issued CD by Cleveland and a collective of musicians he's dubbed the Emergency Broadcast Players. Containing 25 tunes that fill nearly 70 minutes, the disc is consistently delightful, and often more than that. At its best, Test is vibrant, fresh and powerful.
The platter, Cleveland says, is "a collage of live collective improvisations. Some of the tunes have notes written, and the musicians could pick certain notes that they wanted to use, but actually, the majority of it is concept-free. The title tune is supposed to sound about as obnoxious as possible, so it will remind you of the emergency-broadcast-testing thing. And even though two of the pieces, 'Joyous Encounters' and 'Longing,' actually have written parts, they both have lots of room for improvised parts, too."
Another pair of tracks, "InStalling" and "The Route of All Evil," epitomizes the album's variety. The former is a tribute to Carl Stalling, who oversaw the music for many of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons made during the Forties and Fifties: "He's the one who was responsible for all those sounds you heard when Sylvester and Tweety were running around," Cleveland points out. As for the latter song, Cleveland reveals that "it's supposed to sound like music played backwards." Achieving this effect was a bit tricky, he concedes: "It's one of those things where you can try it and try it again and it won't work, but the next time it does. I don't know why. But I can't say that it was that hard. Everybody was listening so well."
The quality of Cleveland's supporting cast undoubtedly made the task easier. A number of the area's finest performers appear on Test, including violinist Jennifer Matsuura, baritone saxophonist Clare Church, bassists Artie Moore and Kaveh Rastegar, drummers Tony Black, Tim Sullivan and Matt Houston, and trumpeters Derek Banach, Shane Endsley and Gramavision Records signee Ron Miles. Cleveland, meanwhile, plays acoustic piano, clavinet, cello, slide whistle and a handful of other instruments that require some explanation, including virtual piano, vibra-slap and lizard. "'Virtual piano' is a phrase I borrowed from Nelson Rangell," Cleveland divulges. "It just means a keyboard like, say, a Roland EP7--the standard piano-in-a-box. A vibra-slap is a percussion instrument that makes kind of a liquid, watery sound. And the lizard is just a squeeze toy that squeaks."
Most intriguing of all is Cleveland's work on the theremin, an electric instrument, complete with antennae, that responds to the movements of a players' hands or body. The device had a brief heyday during the psychedelic era: The whooooo-oooooo-ooooo effect that helps distinguish the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" was produced using this tool. (Lothar and the Hand People, a defunct Denver-based act that retains a cult following among aficionados of Sixties art rock, also employed a theremin.) According to Cleveland, he began tinkering with the contraption after viewing Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a 1994 documentary about Leon Theremin, the Russian physicist who invented it in 1920. At this point, he still considers himself a theremin novice, but he's become so attached to the instrument that he's named his "Uma"--a decision that may say more about Cleveland's fantasies than anyone really needs to know.
Because of the spontaneity involved in the cutting of Test, the songs on it sound quite different in a live setting. In Cleveland's opinion, that's only natural. "The CD represents just one dimension of my work," he says. "I do a lot of other things. When I do a concert, about half of it will be free stuff, and the rest will probably be written." He adds, "I actually have another CD of music that was recorded when this one was; it's all written stuff that's stylistically somewhere between Only a Test and Donut Storm [a Cleveland disc from 1995]. I made the recordings all at once, but I figured that this one would be too hard to sell, so I put it out myself. I've got an eighteen-minute demo of the other one to send to record companies, so I'm basically trying to be patient enough to find someone to put it out. I can't afford the money, time or energy that it would take to put out another album myself--at least not right away."
Fortunately, an interested party may be waiting in the wings: New York's Knitting Factory, the nerve center for America's jazz avant-garde, put out feelers to the Emergency Broadcast Players following the release of Test. If the group goes national, however, it will do so with a rotating lineup necessitated by the previous commitments of its members. Miles is busy with his own band, a full-time teaching gig and scheduled collaborations with Bill Frisell and Ginger Baker; Endsley has joined the band of saxophonist Steve Coleman; Rastegar is taking classes on the East Coast; and Cleveland himself may soon be hooking up with Texas drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.