As 2014 was coming to a close, I received some very exciting news from the UK that BGO Records was going to release: "EYEWITNESS"(1981); "MODERN TIMES"(1982); and "CASA LOCO"(1983), packaged together, as 3 Albums on 2 CDs. This, of course, was a complete and total surprise to me. For those of you who might not have even been born prior to those years, these 3 albums featured a consistent core group of personnel, that included: Anthony Jackson(Bass Guitar & Contrabass Guitar); Steve Jordan(Drums); and Manolo Badrena(Percussion & Voice).
As the decade of the '80s dawned, I had been dropped by Columbia Records, which was really a devastating moment for me, and I felt totally lost, musically speaking. With the help of some wonderful encouragement from dear friends, I recorded a solo acoustic guitar album, "EVIDENCE" in 1980, and this brought me back closer to the very reasons that I wanted to play Jazz, in some form, and pursue it without reservation. Looking back, it's hard to know exactly what was the precise motivation for picking-up the phone and calling Anthony Jackson and Steve Jordan to get together and play, only explaining that I had some ideas that I wanted to try and hoped that we could all go in this direction together. I tried to explain that I was going back to a much more basic guitar sound, and that I was really "starting over"! It wasn't long before those phone calls that I had been a part of Mike Mainieri's great album, "WANDERLUST" and, for the first time, I met and played with percussionist Manolo Badrena, whose work we all knew because of his brilliant contributions to Weather Report. I came away from working with Manolo feeling that I needed to be around that kind of musical energy, that kind of spontaneous creativity. I just had a feeling that Manolo would bring something to this group that would make it different than everything else.
After having spent the decade of the '70s playing so much music, in a variety of groups, almost all including the sounds and textures of the Fender Rhodes, I had come to feel that I might not be able to play or hear music without it. The great Don Grolnick had been such an immense part of everything that I had done, it was going to be strange not to have him there. So, the additional big decision to play in a keyboardless group was a bit scary for me, but a challenge that I welcomed - and felt that Anthony, Steve and Manolo would benefit from all the air and space in this new music. This was perhaps the best decision that I made in this process of discovery. One of the great beauties in having played so much of Randy Brecker's music during the '70s, I had become accustomed to a style of music and music-making where, for the betterment of the music, everything was neatly and tightly in place, and each instrument had a huge role in the overall sound and feeling. Randy's music had such a strong impact on all of us that breaking away from it was going to be difficult.
The approach that I took was that we would meet up at Steve Jordan's Manhattan loft once or twice per week, schedules permitting, and we would just play, jamming on the few fragments that I had in my imagination, and, during those jams, I would tape everything to cassette. Later, I would go home and listen to what we had played and would then try to construct pieces with a bit more of a sense of form and structure. With the four personalities involved, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember when other musicians found out about what we were doing, they would say things to me like: "Man, you're a brave guy getting involved with those three characters!" I couldn't understand what they were talking about, but, it didn't take long to find out. Every time I had an idea or a suggestion that might have harkened back to an older way of doing things, one of the three of them, or all of them, would shoot down that idea quicker than you can imagine. So, my first lessons were in letting go of past concepts and learning to go in new directions and uncharted territory. Of course, this was the very thing that made our music so unique. It was four musical minds bringing something special and very personal to the creative table and then finding a way to make it work. All that mattered was that it had to make sense to us!
It wasn't too long after we had started playing together that I felt something very special was happening in that room, and something make me feel like we had to record that music BEFORE we actually KNEW what we were doing. And so, I went to George Braun (PMC International), told him about what we were doing, and asked him if he knew of anyone in Japan who might be crazy enough to give us the chance to record. He worked something out with Kenny Inaoka, who was launching his own label, Trio Records, and we were ready to go. the "EYEWITNESS" album, recorded in November of 1981, brought us together with engineer Doug Epstein and Mediasound Studios. Doug and Mediasound were also a huge part of what we did during those years. The next thing we knew, we were going to be headed to Japan for what would be our 1st time actually playing this music in front of people at Tokyo's then famous Pit Inn Club. So, in order to have enough new music ready, I wrote 3 new tunes and we jammed-up a 4th, and we would then have 9 tunes. In addition to those tunes, just for fun, we had also been playing Ornette Coleman's "Blue Connotation" and an old surfing tune, the Pyramids' "Penetration." At the same time, George Braun had fielded an offer for us to record a live album. So, crazy as might sound, we were about to play our 1st gig and make a live album at the same time! Pretty insane!!! That album would become "MODERN TIMES" for its release in Japan, and because of a conflict of titles with a Steps Ahead album, our record became known as "BLADES" in the USA. So, we had recorded two albums in two years.
Inspired by the reception in Japan and the energy from the live recording, we continued to work hard to jam-up new music at Steve's loft. The music was truly becoming more group-oriented and group-composed. This was just what I was looking for. Somewhere along the way, there was a moment when I would realize that what I was playing alone was not strong enough to carry the piece melodically. With "necessity being the mother of invention," we realized quite by accident that Manolo had another great talent, he could sing - and sing really great. So, those melodic voids began to be filled by Manolo's inventive chants, in Spanish and other languages, some invented, and it was then that the music entered into the area of what I liked to call, the extended song form. All of the Jazz-oriented elements would remain but the sense of a long-form song would be there too. Pieces like "Casa Loco"; "Some Sharks" and "The Suitcase" were the first experiments down this path, and the album "CASA LOCO" was born in 1983.
From a business perspective, many crazy things happened and did not happen. In truth, we had already recorded these three albums BEFORE any of them had been released in our own country. The truth is that no one at any of the major and not-so-major Jazz labels wanted the recordings. They just didn't know what it was. For them, it just did not fit into any one convenient category, and marketing people desperately need that. For me, this was very sad, and very frustrating. Finally after an interminable period of indecision and back & forth, Ron Goldstein of Antilles Records, a division of Island Records, finally decided to pick-up both "EYEWITNESS" and "CASA LOCO." So, those recordings were finally released in 1984-1985. When "EYEWITNESS" was first released here in the USA, it was very strange for all of us to do interviews abut it because we were already two more recordings beyond it - but we couldn't talk about them because NO ONE, apart from our musician friends had heard them. In the meantime, the group had built-up quite a following by playing with some regularity at Seventh Avenue South, the club that had been started by the Brecker Brothers. We certainly had some really wild night there! It was a crazy time! However, as we never had a real manager, it was hard to work outside of New York and Japan! We did play one concert in Boston at the Berklee Performance Center and sadly, that was it!!! The money was so bad that we could not even afford to stay overnight there. We flew up, played, and we flew right back!
Though, since 1985, we have not played together again as the original group, it's obvious that Anthony, Steve and Manolo have come to be regards as giants on their instruments. I remain very, very proud of what we did together. For me, this concept of music-making that we started together continues to the present. Almost everything that I have done since this group bears the influence of the sounds and textures that we created together. Though Steve Jordan was not present, recordings like "PUBLIC ACCESS"(1989); "HEADLINE"(1992); and "CROSSINGS"(1994) continued to reflect the sounds of Eyewitness.
Though I have stated this before, most music fans operate under the grave misconception that "the artist" has some control over, or something to say about their previously recorded catalog albums. And if that was true, logic would dictate that we would be, at the very least, consulted should a possible reissue package be in consideration. However, the truth is that we rarely, if ever, have anything to say!!! Unlike my first reissue package for BGO Records, of my three Columbia Records albums from 1977-79, this Eyewitness reissue package was actually my idea, and one that I floated to Andy Gray at BGO. But this gesture might never have happened had it not been for the wonderful piece written by John Kelman, Eyewitness Remembered, for allaboutjazz.com, and that very piece served as an inspiration to float the idea of an Eyewitness reissue. Now, here we are, some months later, the reissue has been officially released and now, Kelman has penned this superb Review of the package. We hope that everyone will take a moment to read what he had to say about these recordings and the players. One must remember that, because Universal Music, now controls these three albums, they can do whatever they like with them - and that includes doing NOTHING at all! For me, it's just a miracle of collective energy and cooperation that this reissue release has now happened.
In order to try to inspire BGO Records to consider an Eyewitness reissue package, and not knowing if they had any kind of prior working relationship with Universal Music, I decided to take a very pro-active and aggressive course of action and, once again, I took another great risk, and asked my dear friend and graphic designer, Janet Perr to design 5 different covers for BGO Records, using other previously unused Folon pieces from various periods of his work. In the end, once the good news was confirmed of a reissue for 2016, we decided that the image, "Dialogue" was best connected to the spirit of the three album covers. Over the many years, I have received so many positive letters and e-mails about the work of Jean-Michel Folon, and his presence on my covers, I thought that this would be wonderful opportunity to give the fans of this music, and the covers, a chance to see something new. And so, I can only express how very grateful I am to company president, Andy Gray for being so receptive to this rather unusual presentation offer from me, the artist. I am so pleased that Andy saw all of this as a positive, and was willing to use this cover design for the package. It is all especially moving and emotional for me as Jean-Michel's beloved wife, publisher and manager Paola Ghiringhelli Folon passed away just this past April 29th, 2012. For my part, this reissue will also be dedicated to Paola's memory, and for all her kindnesses to me over the many years that we all remained friends.
Photos: Steve, Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, Manolo Badrena Collage