“I’ve been very busy,” says Rob Thorsen. Java and muffin sitting in front of him at an outdoor table at La Jolla’s Pannikin on a lazy afternoon, this comes off like a joke. The San Diego bassist looks like yet another laid-back and unhurried Californian. But his appearance belies a schedule that would be the envy of any musician. His quartet has been featured at a number of recent music festivals. In March he completed a tour of Arizona and Utah with award winning singer Steph Johnson and drummer Fernando Gomez. This past January he performed with pianist and saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta at the NAMM show, the big annual Anaheim shindig for the folks who make musical instruments. And by press time he will have just completed a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, performing in concerts and clinics at the University of Fairbanks.
And that doesn’t even cover his regular gigs.
For going on over 20 years now, Rob Thorsen has distinguished himself as one of San Diego’s most in-demand jazz bassists. Lauded for his solid playing, “confident” and “firm” are words that music critics have used to describe his sound and approach. Jim Traseger of the North County Times has claimed that Thorsen is the equal of any of the top musicians of LA, New Orleans, or New York.
To hear Thorsen with an ensemble is to hear jazz bass at its most modern and innovative. Hammer-ons and pull-offs pepper his lines. He also incorporates double stops (playing two notes at the same time) and glissandi in his comping and soloing. Noteworthy is Thorsen’s ability to employ rhythmic variation within the framework of the traditional jazz walking bass line, breaking up the otherwise stepwise style. This adds a great deal of liveliness to the bass, as well as the overall sound of the band.
Lantern jawed, bald, with professorial greying temples, he looks like what most people think of when they think of a bass player. He is enviably thin, with a sort of Lincolnesque lankiness, and his hands seem to be really big when they pass over the strings of his instrument. His head often bobs with the downbeat, and he has a look of enlightened concentration, eyes often shut and a slight smile crossing his face. He makes frequent eye contact with the other musicians. This eye contact, the silent communication among musicians, illustrates an essential of great jazz bassists, to be always listening and aware, and being thoroughly engaged in the musical conversation, responding and conversing with the drummer, pianist, and soloist.
His mother played the classical guitar in their San Diego home. She, as well as Thorsen’s aunt, also gave him an introduction to jazz as they played the record albums of Cannonball Adderley and Dave Brubeck on the home stereo. “I’ve liked the bass since I was a little kid,” says Thorsen. “I remember seeing a show on television with a band, and I remember seeing and hearing the bass player and I really liked it. I liked the sound.” His first instrument was the baritone ukulele, which he picked up when he was around six. In the school band he played flute, saxophone, and even the tuba. And an introduction to playing jazz came during middle school.
At 19 he found himself in San Francisco, where he bought an electric bass at a garage sale and began playing in a few of the street bands that are part of the culture of the city by the bay. About two years later he began his switch to the upright bass. He says, “At UC Berkeley they had an afro-jazz jam that I would attend. I had been playing electric bass and a little bit of sax at the time, too. Then I bought an upright for 500 dollars.” Played up against his side, making deep, rich tones that he could feel as well as hear sealed the deal for Thorsen. He was hooked and found his lifelong instrument. “I also liked that the bass has the quality to pull things together in music, and I liked the creative element of the upright in jazz,” he says.
For years Thorsen remained largely self-taught. In his later twenties he spent a year studying at the Bass Institute of Technology (now the Musicians’ Institute). He remembers, “It was a great time to be there. The school was filled with great older studio guys like Putter Smith. At the time it was a real jazz school.” Among his other teachers was Bob Magnusson, the native San Diegan who is almost synonymous with the string bass. After his time at the institute he studied music at the University of Miami in Florida.
When he speaks about his influences and bassists he admires, Thorsen first mentions Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford, two of the most innovative and musical bassists of the forties and fifties. He also mentions Charlie Hayden, the bassist who, at a time of increasing reliance on electronics, kept true to the acoustic sound of he upright. Though he acknowledges the musicians who had an influence on him, Thorsen is keenly aware of making music that is his own. “I try to be receptive to outside influences, but true to myself as well,” he says. “I try to give my own vision of what music can be. Ultimately, I try not to sound like someone else or what I think someone expects me to sound like. I work at what I think all musicians want to become: completely expressive with their instruments.”
Two or three Thursdays a month Thorsen is at Croce’s, performing with the New Latin Jazz Quintet. And every Wednesday he is at El Camino in Little Italy for the jam session sponsored by Gilbert Castellanos, San Diego’s premier jazz trumpeter. Castellanos and the band usually perform the first set, then, as with other jam sessions, the venue is opened for the other musicians. Thorsen says, “It’s a great scene, and some great players always show up. Charles McPherson has sat in a few times, and Terrance Blanchard even showed up one time.”
Besides Castellanos, Thorsen performs often with pianist Joshua White. Among their dates the two have played a number of times at the Hotel Laguna. He performs as a trio with Steph Johnson and Fernando Gomez and is often at La Jolla’s Athenaeum and at the Lyceum in the Gaslamp District. “It’s a good gig,” he says. “You play at midday and you’re downtown, so there are a lot of people from the offices down there who show up.”
In 2002 Thorsen released his first CD, First Impression. Three other disks followed. The most recent, Lasting Impression, was released in 2009. All the disks are a collection of jazz standards from composers such as Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, Gershwin, and others, as well as original compositions by the bassist.
About eight years ago Thorsen developed a 40-minute presentation in which he and a small ensemble demonstrate to schoolchildren the culture and history of jazz. Called Jazz as an Art Form, Thorsen developed the program with elementary and middle school classrooms in mind. “We show them the instruments and how we play them. We show them that sound, that music, is a vibration. We also have them sing along with us in the demonstration. It’s very interactive,” says Thorsen. The demonstration is 40 minutes of class time, but the program starts days ahead. Teachers receive study guides, and children are given jazz-related coloring books and crossword puzzles. After the presentation students are often encouraged to make drawings of the band.
The program picked up a great deal of steam about five years ago. For the past two years Thorsen has incorporated the support of Young Audiences, one of the country’s leading organizations providing arts-in-education services, local jazz station KSDS, and the local chapter of the Musicians’ Union. The interactivity and support gives Jazz as an Art Form the ability to go to schools that would otherwise be unable to afford the program.
Thorsen wants his program to encompass more than a musical demonstration. He says, “In a way, teaching kids about music is teaching them so much more. In order to learn about jazz, we talk about New Orleans and how it came to be the place that fostered jazz. It was such a melting pot. It was a port city with many different people coming and going, and that it was the entry way to the Mississippi. So right there you have a history lesson and a geography lesson.”
As jazz was born out of a melting pot and continues to incorporate the influences of diverse music and people, Thorsen believes that the children can see themselves and can identify themselves with jazz music. “What we are trying to show them is that this is your history; this is your culture. Kids can identify with it whether they are African-American or white or whatever.” He adds, “The kids are way into it! Many of them have never experienced live music.”
Thorsen finishes his muffin and coffee. Before heading off to another appointment he pauses. “You know, I was up till one last night practicing,” he says. “I just feel so motivated. I like what I’m doing. The music that I’m doing is so rewarding; it’s challenging and always different. And all of it is never ending.”