The Protean Bass of Rob Thorsen- article by Robert Bush

The Protean Bass of Rob Thorsen

Hard work, versatility and attitude define this musician.

The Protean Bass of Rob Thorsen

Michael Klayman

Bassist Rob Thorsen laying it down.

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San Diego double bassist Rob Thorsen doesn’t consider himself a “flashy, chops type player,” but he must be doing something right, because he’s just about the busiest bassist in town.

Thorsen’s versatility is one key to the hectic schedule. Whether he’s playing be-bop with Charles McPherson, Latin jazz with trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, accompanying a pop star with the San Diego Symphony Pops or doing a free-jazz session with Jason Robinson, Thorsen comes prepared, ready to nail it.

The bass player came up in a musical family, influenced by his mother who played guitar.

“I started out playing classical guitar when I was 7 or 8, and did that until I was 11, then the flute for a year before I switched to saxophone, which I played pretty much throughout my teen years,” Thorsen said.

After moving to the Bay Area, Thorsen bought an electric bass at a yard sale, followed by an upright a few years later.

“As soon as I started playing the bass, I dug it,” Thorsen said. “I’ve always loved the groove. I’m attracted to rhythm. I dug the role of the instrument. I wouldn’t say that it came naturally, because I worked really hard at it, and I still spend every available second working at it.”

Within a year of acquiring the instrument, Thorsen had gigs.

“Well, I had two things going for me: I played the bass, and I had van,” Thorsen said, laughing. “So maybe some of those early things fell in my lap because I had transportation. But I took it really seriously.”

At 24, he signed a seven-month contract to play on a cruise ship, giving him time to hone his skills.

“I used that time to really work on the instrument and learn tunes,” Thorsen said. “I looked at it as an opportunity, because I didn’t really have to worry about day-to-day living. I was making good money, and I didn’t really have the chance to spend any of it. So it was a real good, productive growth period.”

Thorsen returned to San Diego in 1986 to help care for his mom, who, even though stricken with cancer, helped him land his first local gig, with saxophone legend Joe Marillo.

“The very first person to hire me when I came back down here was Joe, who I used to take sax lessons from, and he kind of hired me, sight unseen, which was very cool of him,” Thorsen said.

Although he is modest about his accomplishments, Thorsen is widely admired in the jazz community.

“You know who I like a lot?” contrabass pioneer Bertram Turetzky said. “Rob Thorsen, because he plays such good time — very good time.”

San Diego jazz power couple Mike Wofford (winner of the 2012 San Diego Music Award Lifetime Achievement Award) and his wife, flute virtuoso Holly Hofmann, tapped Thorsen for their recent critically acclaimed album, Turn Signal, on Capri Records.

“When we record, we usually use our New York rhythm section,” said Hofmann, on the phone from a gig in Oregon, “But Rob was perfect for this session because he always works so hard on the material, and he really worked with Mike to make sure he was in tune with Mike’s vision for each piece.”

I asked Thorsen if he has a theory on why his phone is always ringing.

“Well, I try very hard to be prepared for all of these different engagements,” Thorsen said. “But most of all, I really love playing music — I think maybe having such a positive attitude on the bandstand has something to do with it.”

The bassist begins each morning early, has some coffee, then dives straight into a practice routine from 8 a.m. to noon. If he has two gigs on the same day with a few hours in between, he’ll drive over to Balboa Park to sneak some additional woodshedding in.

“At home, I’m always trying to learn new tunes, whether it’s for Gilbert Castellanos or [guitarist/vocalist] Steph Johnson, so I’ll learn the melodies and harmonic structure on the piano as well as the bass,” Thorsen said.

The music of Castellanos and Johnson couldn’t be further apart, stylistically, and playing with free-jazz saxophone firebrand Jason Robinson represents a whole different skill set as well.

“He thinks like a composer, and he’s always creating compelling, passionate and logical structures when he improvises,” Robinson said. “Yet at the same time, he has a deep understanding of the role of the bass in jazz and other music. He knows how to lay it down, as musicians say.”

I asked Thorsen what he was most looking forward to.

“I’ve a couple of things I’m totally psyched about,” the bassist said. “One is a live recording I did about a year ago with Joshua White and Duncan Moore. I’ve just now heard it, and it’s so good I’m thinking about putting it out. I also just did a solo bass concert at the Museum of Photographic Arts, which represented a personal milestone for me. I’ve never done that, but it turned out so well I’m considering making a solo-bass record. The third thing is Steph Johnson’s new record with me and [drummer] Fernando Gomez. I’ve been listening to that a lot lately, and I’m really excited about it. We actually just booked some studio time to do a few overdubs and stuff, and I think it’s going to be a really great CD.”

In the meantime, Thorsen will stay busy balancing 5-10 gigs a week with rehearsals, bass students and recording sessions.

You can catch Thorsen every Wednesday night at the El Camino in Little Italy, or on July 21, with pianist Diane Moser, drummer Duncan Moore, guitarist Peter Sprague and percussionist Will Parsons at 98 Bottles.

 Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

Summer is here !!

Happy Summer in paradise! It has even been sunny along the coast!!  Exciting projects on the burner- Guitarist/ singer Steph Johnson’s trio record has been recorded with drummer Fernando Gomez and I- we are doing some final recording touches then mixing and mastering. It should be out by the end of the summer, it will feature some of Stephs new originals and 6 arrangements of classic jazz standards- this girl sings! see for details and if would like to help us out with any donation check the website.

Extra special concerts this summer include Rob Thorsen Quartet (Gilbert Castellanos, Joshua White, Duncan Moore) playing a Fathers day concert at Scripps Ranch Library on Sunday June 17th 3-4pm, the Story of the Underground Railroad with storyteller Alyce Smith (duo with Bass) at the Vine in Rancho Bernardo on 6/15 and 6/16, Rob Thorsen Solo bass performance at the Museum of Photographic Arts on July 5th (5:30 to 7:30), Rob Thorsen/ Steph Johnson trio at La Jolla Riford Center wine tasting on 6/28, Ruby Blue at Oceanside First Christian Church on July 8th @ 3pm.

Please see my just redone website at for more information, thank you for all your support!!

Making music !!

Studio time with SJ, Why I love playing music

I just finished recording with one of my favorite musicians, guitarist/singer/songwriter Steph Johnson with able assistance by drummer Fernando Gomez. This is a FUN group, we do a mix of Stephs originals, jazz standards and even one of my originals ! We recorded 12 or 13 tunes at Audio Dimensions , Chris Hobson was our engineer and did a great job- Yay Chris !!  Being in the studio can a serious challenge but all our “ducks were in a row” and it came off well. We have some minor overdubbing and editing left to do but overall it’s “in the can”. The empathy that has developed in this band is astounding- it is all based on trust and confidence in one another as people, musicians, and kindred creative spirits. This group has it all !

Steph Johns, Rob Thorsen, Fernado "Fernie" Gomez

Making Music !

Lately I have come to realize just how amazing being a musician can be- my gigs are (generally) really fun and I could not be happier with the artists I work with. Gilbert Castellanos, Holly Hofmann, Mike Wofford, Joshua White, Duncan Moore, Richard Sellers, Bob Boss, Charles McPherson and others. These are all people have have dedicated their life to music and I am so glad to share this experience with them.

Also my educational program “Jazz an American Art Form” has taken off- we have performed for over 6,000 students this year and have been fortunate enough to get funding to present to Title One (low income) schools in particular. KSDS Jazz 88.3. The San Diego Musicians Union Local 325, Price Charities, Livy Delafield Fund have been instrumental in making this happen. Thank you to all of You !!