After Prince’s Parade tour ended in September 1986, Eric Leeds was sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon when he got a call from his boss: “I’m here with my dad playing some jazz. Want to come over and play with us?” An hour later, Leeds showed up at Prince’s house, where Prince led him to an upstairs room with a grand piano. “His dad had left, though, so now what?” The two went on to do what they often did: jam with no explanation.
“We’re sitting at the piano. I get my horn out. Prince starts to play progressions on the piano. I’m writing down chord changes. He’s coming up with melodies … we went through three songs until he said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ I’m thinking we’re going to record whatever music it is we just played. I get downstairs to the studio … he already had the tracks done to these same three songs. What he was doing, without telling me, was teaching me these songs in their simplest form. The only thing left to do was fill in the blanks. Two hours later, I put sax and flute on these songs—the melody lines, keyboard, bass, and drums were already there courtesy of Prince. He told me to come back tomorrow, I came back, and he had two or three more songs done for me to solo on. Three days later, he articulated that this would be an album of just him and me and that he was calling this Madhouse, had already talked with Warners, who were behind the project and set to release it without our names on it—anonymously, so to not get killed by jazz critics or people expecting a Prince album. … Prince loved his mysteries.”
That’s how the jittery funk and jiving fusion of the all-instrumental 8 was quickly born, and released in early 1987. “Because it’s not a vocal album, my saxophone and flute is the equivalent of the lead vocalist,” Leeds says of 8. “Prince, though, was still the writer, the producer, the director—I was just the actor. He did this for me. I’m humbled by that. I couldn’t tell anyone it was me and him, but I was still humbled.”
Several months later, Prince and Leeds added Levi Seacer, Jr. (guitar), Sonny Thompson (bass), and Michael Bland (drums) for the harder, more soulful 16. A third Madhouse album, titled 24, started production in 1988, but Leeds said that both he and Prince lost interest. They didn’t forget about the songs, though—retitled, unreleased Madhouse tracks such as the funky “Penetration,” the ballad-like “A Girl and Her Puppy,” and the bluesy “Jailbait” were sent by Prince to Miles Davis in March ’91 for the trumpeter’s recording consideration and were played by Davis’ band on tour throughout that winter and spring. Miles recorded new versions of them in Europe and intended to finish them in NYC before he passed later that year. When Prince was asked about adding post-production to “Penetration” for Miles’ posthumously released Doo-Bop album, he refused, supposedly saying that he felt the music didn’t show Davis in his finest light, according to the exhaustively researched fan site PrinceVault.com.
Leeds is less pleased with Madhouse 8 (“nothing very interesting”) than he is with 16 (“more complex, closer to what I really liked”), but he appreciates that since their release, Madhouse has become celebrated among jazz players. “Roy Hargrove told me he loved that [first] album. Branford Marsalis was a big Prince fan and got into my shit because of Madhouse. When Kenny Garrett was in Miles’ band, he had a cassette of his group playing Madhouse songs. Who am I to tell those guys it wasn’t any good?”