Robin Tolleson Keeps Blue Note Spirit Alive with ‘Spinterviews’

Originally published by Vincent Harris for The Journal
November 28, 2014

It’s hard to argue with the legacy of Blue Note Records. The venerable label has spent much of its 75 years delivering some of the best jazz in the history of the medium, wrapped in some of the most evocative packaging of the LP era.

The list of Blue Note alums is astounding: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins are just a few of the liminaries who released albums on Blue Note, and the label has managed to remain relevant into the 21st century, releasing last year’s Elvis Costello/Roots collaboration, “Wise Up Ghost.”

It’s a label that writer and drummer Robin Tolleson grew up loving, along with just about every other kind of music, in one of the most musical cities on the country.

“I grew up in San Francisco,” Tolleson says, “and as a kid, my dad was trumpet player and arranger and a big-band leader. So I saw music as a way to make a living. And there was a ton of great music. On the radio, you could hear everything from the Rolling Stones to the Charles Lloyd Blues Quartet to Santana. There was just a ton of music going on out there, so I guess I got the bug.”

Tolleson started playing drums, but developed a love of writing as well, which led him onto his ultimate career path. “In 1977 I decided to pitch a couple of music magazines on story ideas. I was studying with a drummer named Narada Michael Walden, who played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, so I pitched a story about him, and got an assignment. Then I pitched a record review to ‘Down Beat,’ and they bought that, so I was kind of on my way to a writing career by the end of -79 and I’ve been writing ever since.”

Tolleson estimates he’s written over 1,500 articles, all while amassing an impressive collection of vinyl.

“It’s been a really amazing career, and when I first started writing in San Francisco, people would send me albums,” he says. “I was receiving some really great vinyl, by all these fantastic artists I was writing about; my record collection was going crazy. I had about 10,000 albums at one point, about 3,000 of which I brought with me when I moved to Hendersonville. So I had a lot of classic vinyl and a lot of interviews with these incredible artists who helped shape jazz, funk and rock over the last 20 or 30 years.”

Which brings us to the “Spinterview,” a concept Tolleson developed that combines his albums and interviews.

“Over the last few years, more and more of these people started passing away,” Tolleson says. “And it made me want to get the interviews out there and let people hear these voices and this music. I got a couple of turntables and got this idea about spinning these classic tracks and then lowering the volume and bringing up the best parts of the interviews in 30- to 60-seconds spurts. The idea is that I’m part DJ, part music historian.”

By coincidence, Tolleson realized after he came up with the Spinterview concept that Blue Note Records was celebrating an auspicious occasion.

“It’s Blue Note’s 75th anniversary this year, and they’re a label I’ve always enjoyed,” Tolleson says. “In fact, my first jazz album was a Blue Note album. And I realized that I had 15 or so interviews with Blue Note artists like Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Bobby McFerrin, Joe Pass, Questlove and Herbie Hancock; all these great artists. So I spoke with [owner] Gene Berger at Horizon about the idea of coming in and doing a salute to Blue Note records. It’ll be a change for people to hear some great music and get some insight into what these artists sounded like, too.”

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