Review Summary: "Like a lotus in an oriental sky."
Over the years there have been many innovative and highly acclaimed musicians that never had the chance to fully live up to their potential, leaving their audiences wondering what might have been. One could consider Tommy Bolin as one such artist. Before his untimely death in 1976, Bolin was one of the most promising guitar talents of the early 70’s. With his unique playing style, Bolin covered a variety of different musical styles from blues to funk to jazz fusion but despite his versatility, Bolin will undoubtedly be remembered most for his brief and turbulent time with British hard rock band, Deep Purple. Sadly in December 1976, years of drug and alcohol abuse, which had often hindered his career, took their toll. Bolin died from an overdose several hours after being on stage in support of his second and final solo album, Private Eyes, at the age of just 25.
At the beginning of his career Bolin made his name with the female-fronted blues rock band Zephyr, who were formed in 1969, and would go on to become one of the most highly respected guitarists of the early 70’s rock scene. However it was actually as part of the jazz fusion scene that Bolin made his biggest impact, when performing on Billy Cobham’s first solo album, 1973’s Spectrum. His guitar playing on Spectrum was at times mind blowing and was effectively what brought him to the attention of Deep Purple, who hired him to replace Richie Blackmore for their tenth studio album, the opinion-dividing Come Taste the Band.
With his first solo album, Teaser which was released in late 1975, around the same time as Come Taste the Band, Bolin began to draw together his vast array of influences into one career defining album. Teaser combines elements of jazz fusion, funk and even reggae into one surprisingly cohesive rock album that stands as one of the guitarist’s finest achievements. Not only does Teaser showcase Bolin’s remarkable skills as a guitar player but also as a songwriter and as a more than adequate vocalist. A perfect example of this can be heard in the form of album opener, The Grind, a funky, energetic rocker that combines Bolin’s flashy guitar playing with classy song writing and memorable vocal hooks. Third track, Dreamer, is another song that showcases Bolin’s vocal talent. This emotional, piano-led ballad stands out as one of the album’s most memorable songs with an excellent emotive vocal performance from Bolin and a powerful guitar solo which oozes feeling. The song climaxes with a cameo appearance from Bolin’s Deep Purple band mate Glenn Hughes who contributes some of his unmistakeable vocals, adding to the soulful feel of the song. Following track, Savannah Woman, an infectious Latin-influenced song, again demonstrates Bolin’s skill as a composer, featuring strong Latin jazz influences, complete with a Santana-esque guitar solo, presented within a typically refined composition.
While the majority of songs on Teaser benefit from their cohesive structure, Bolin does allow himself to stretch out on occasion, most notably on the jazz fusion number Marching Powder, which is one of two instrumental tracks on the album. The song’s main recurring melody is broken up by some superb guitar playing, which provides a perfect example of Bolin’s unique jazz-influenced playing style that featured so prominently on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. Bolin’s guitar playing peaks with the album’s title track, a seemingly straight forward rocker that manages to incorporate some of Bolin’s flashiest guitar techniques without sounding at all self-indulgent. One moment Bolin’s guitar cuts through with the sound of a laser beam the next it retreats to a more conventional bluesy sound. The song is elevated to even greater heights by Jeff Porcaro’s classy drumming, which is particularly effective during the song’s solo section.
At the other end of the spectrum songs like People, People rely more on creative song-craft than Bolin’s guitar heroics. Fusing together equal parts of reggae and jazz-rock, People, People is stylistically one of the albums most intriguing songs, featuring an infectious reggae groove and some excellent alto sax from renowned session saxophonist David Sanborn. The album concludes with one of Bolin’s most beautiful compositions, Lotus, a song that features some of the guitarist’s gentlest and most melodic guitar licks which combined with the soft, gentle percussion give the verses an almost psychedelic feel, beautifully contrasted by the heavier chorus. This song is perhaps the album’s biggest testament to Bolin’s skills as a composer and songwriter, providing an appropriate conclusion to an expertly crafted album.
To conclude, Teaser is one of the most interesting and unique “rock” albums of the 70’s and is undoubtedly one of the high points of Bolin’s short but prolific career. Covering such a wide range of styles and incorporating numerous different influences, Teaser is quite a hard album to categorise; it straddles the line between jazz-rock and more straight forward classic rock, while still being relatively experimental. Despite its eclectic nature, Teaser doesn’t at any point sound forced or disjointed, which is perhaps one of the album’s most impressive attributes.
In many ways Teaser ended up being an unintentionally apt title for this album as at times this record hints at an even greater level of creativity and success that could have been achieved had Bolin’s career not been consumed by the on-going drug and alcohol problems that led to his death. However, perhaps it would be better to look at what Bolin did
manage to achieve in his tragically short career rather than what might have been. After all by the time of his death, Bolin had reached greater heights than many guitarists could have hoped to reach even in a career spanning three or four times that of Bolin’s. In fact, returning to the opening sentence of this review, it could be argued that Bolin did manage to realise his potential after all, all be it at a very early age.
Bolin went on to release one more album after this, the excellent Private Eyes, which although not quite as impressive as Teaser, further demonstrated Bolin’s artistry. Looking back on the guitarist’s brief career it’s remarkable to think that he managed to achieve so much in such a short time. To leave behind such an impressive and varied discography at the age of just 25 is impressive to say the least and with more material still being unearthed from the archives after all this time, it seems that there’s still even more material yet to see the light of day. For anyone not familiar with Tommy Bolin’s music, or for those who are only familiar with his performance on Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band, Teaser would be the perfect place to start as it provides the perfect snapshot of Bolin’s trademark style and brings together all his best attributes into one superb album.