The Protean Bass of Rob Thorsen
Hard work, versatility and attitude define this musician.
Bassist Rob Thorsen laying it down.
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.