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Improvisational Inspiration

Mark Growden's music goes with the flow.

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Once, when Oakland musician Mark Growden was doing the music for a festival at a theater, all of his instruments were stolen--all kinds of strange musical apparatuses from all over the world he had been collecting for years, just gone.

"I was pretty crushed, you know, and too young to realize that material stuff doesn't really matter," said Growden. "But then I just started singing on the way home. And then later that week, I found an accordion in the basement of this elementary school where I was the music teacher. That was my day job. Anyhow, I started playing it, and that was all I had.

"So I started writing songs on accordion, and somebody gave me a banjo that they had sitting around, and I started writing songs on banjo. Someone gave me a guitar, and I started writing songs on guitar, and someone gave me a lap steel guitar, and I started writing songs on that steel guitar. And now that's what I do. That's what I do for a living."

Growden's music is at once everywhere and nowhere; his songs sample so many different styles and forms of music that you can't pin Growden down as just a jazz musician or a classical musician or a rock musician. He plays avant-garde rock, jazz, contemporary classical, blues, country, Eastern European traditional. He writes songs that pulse with drama, songs that slide with grace; his voice can resonate in loud registers and then drop back down to softer, subtler tones. He plays everything from guitar to accordion to piano to woodwinds to flutes he makes himself out of PVC pipes. He doesn't just play the instruments; he lets the instruments play themselves.

"I write in different genres, because I play a lot of instruments," said Growden. "I don't really identify with one style of music. My main influence is instruments. I'll work in most any style. And some of my songs, I like to hope, aren't any style. You couldn't really say, 'Oh, this is that kind of song. This is just this piece, this music with these words, so it's a song because the guy's singing.'"

Growden is a musician who functions as a sort of receptacle for musical inspiration; instruments, songs, ideas and shows just seem to seek him out. When he was a baby, he recently discovered, his parents' friends used to put a record player at the foot of his crib and play Motown to get him to go to sleep. Even as an infant, music just seemed to come to him.

He had to quit his day job as a music teacher in order to keep up with all the shows and commissions he gets. Just this past weekend, he played five shows; the weekend before that, six. He's doing a film score for a stop-motion animation feature that involves creatures on a different planet. He's doing the soundtrack for a musical in Oakland. And he has five albums in the works. Challenges like having his instruments stolen or having his tour van break down seem to change his career for the better.

"I didn't choose this, you know what I mean, the singing and all this stuff," said Growden. "I didn't plan this. If you told me 10 years ago this is what I'd be doing for a living, I'd laugh. I feel like it kind of chose me more than I chose it. And so I do my best. I feel like I'm--I know this is a cliché-- but I feel like I'm writing something bigger than me, and doing my best to be generous with it. That's really my intention."

Growden is no stranger to Tucson; he's played here numerous times during the past five years. In fact, he said that a dream of his is to have a second house in the Barrio.

"Years ago, when I first started touring, the guy who played trumpet for me also played trumpet for Calexico, Jon Birdsong ... so he and some other friends of Calexico got me my first show there years ago, five years ago this coming spring, at 7 Black Cats," said Growden. "The thing is, on that first tour, my fucking van broke down--the transmission gave out--and I ended up spending 11 days in Tucson. And in those 11 days, I played, like, nine shows. So I was there, and I was like, what the fuck, I'll just play, and I really built an affinity for Tucson during that time."

His upcoming show at Solar Culture will be his first show at that venue, because the last time he was booked to play there, his tour bus blew up before he could get here. But for an incredibly versatile and flexible musician like Growden, tour buses blowing up isn't a big deal.

Growden not only plays all kinds of music; he'll basically play anywhere for anyone. "I've played theaters, clubs, festivals, museums, kitchens, barbecues, campfires, cafes, old folk's homes, children's hospitals, cellars, rooftops, sex parties, the street, amphitheaters, strip clubs, elementary schools, warehouses, creek beds, weddings and even a funeral for a famous Hindu doctor." he says on his web site

"I swear I do all this shit," he laughed. "I love playing in living rooms. I love playing in kitchens... . Recently, I've been very aware of the fact that my primary medium isn't music or even songs or my instruments; the main medium is the moment. And I'm really into performing. I'm not a shoegazer indie guy. Not soul--maybe I shouldn't say this, but--soul-free white indie rock. I like to perform; I like to be generous."

Growden uses his jazz and classical training to create music that is improvisational yet structured artistry. He has a few records out, including Downstairs Karaoke, Inside Beneath Behind, and a recent live record, all released independently. But in order to really get a feel for the range of music that Growden is capable of creating, you have to see him perform.

"I have albums out, but that's not my main medium at all," he said. "That's cool and I like doing that, but I feel like recordings are a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a snapshot. Of that moment. So my main thing is live performance. In front of people. And the less stuff between me and the audience, the better. I love to play acoustic in a room, without any sound amplification, if I can. Solar Culture's too big. And their sound system is so great.

"But my favorite is like sitting in a circle in a living room, and playing with nothing between me and the audience," he adds. "It's handy that I have a lot of styles of music, in that I can have big songs and funny songs and quiet songs and sad songs and slow songs because that way I can play any room. And I can do it solo. Even at a huge club I've played solo, I have to pick it up some and I have to really feel the room and draw in with the quiet ones just right. I love that, that dance between, the play between the audience and the musician."

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