Mark Growden admits that he might never have started singing and writing songs had he not been ripped off.
Growden was a jazz saxophonist and music teacher in his adopted hometown of San Francisco—until in 1997, when his instruments were stolen. So he started writing songs on accordion and singing. Soon, he was playing banjo, piano and guitar as well.
"I didn't even choose this career," he says during a recent phone interview. "It chose me."
That career has led Growden to create rich, haunting and personal song cycles that incorporate avant-garde, rock, cabaret, blues, country, contemporary classical and Tin Pan Alley. He regularly plays with a sextet, but also composes music for film and live theater and dance productions.
Growden, who has performed in Tucson several times over the last decade, will return to town to play Saturday night, Jan. 16, at the Screening Room.
The Screening Room concert also will include a short opening performance by Tucson Puppet Works, whose large-scale puppet productions have become a mainstay of the Tucson alternative-arts scene. Following the live music, audiences are invited to stick around for a free screening at 10:30 p.m. of director Christiane Cegavske's 70-minute animated film Blood Tea and Red String, which includes an original score by Growden.
The gig will kick off a monthly concert series that will continue with a Valentine's Day show on Feb. 13 by Amy Rude and friends.
Although his band isn't making the trip to Tucson because of other commitments, Growden will play with a backing group of all-star Tucson musicians: guitarist Clay Koweek, saxophonist Marco Rosano and violinist Vicki Brown.
Growden says it's important to interact as much as possible with the community in which he performs, and he has enjoyed collaborating with Tucson musicians and artists. When his van broke down in Tucson several years ago, he was stranded here for "between a week and 10 days," during which time he played several gigs in the Old Pueblo.
He has recorded nine albums, the most recent of which is Saint Judas (Porto Franco Records), which is so new that it won't be available in stores until March. In the meantime, you can buy it at Growden's gigs or his Web site (markgrowden.org).
As impressive as his music has been in the past, Saint Judas is a huge leap forward—marked by sophisticated compositions and rich, moving performances by Growden and his band. The songs explore, as his Web site puts it, "pain and catharsis, love and transformation, tenderness and desire," much of it in a context that calls on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Songs such as the title track, "Undertaker," "Delilah" and "The Gates/Take Me to the Water" draw on Biblical mythology.
"I guess it all comes back to the fact that I was raised by a preacher, for one," he says. "I take those characters, like Judas, who is so vilified, but he's integral to the philosophy of religion. I guess you could say dogma has maligned him. But I take those characters, like him and Delilah, and try to make something that is all about compassion and forgiveness."
As part of his three-album deal with Porto Franco, Growden already is planning an old-timey country album and a CD of material for a chamber ensemble, he says.
In addition to playing songs with his band, Growden is intimately involved in the worlds of dance, theater and film. He has composed scores for productions by the Joe Goode Performance Group, Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and the play The Fire Odyssey by the performing-arts studio The Crucible.
"Live music is only a part of what I do," he says. "I am steeped in the San Francisco performance-arts world. I worked with lots of dance companies and performance artists—not necessarily theater, where it's just a play. I have learned a lot from a lot of diverse artists and by taking things slow in stages and not rushing into things."
He also works in other media: "I am really committed to making abstract art of any kind. I am also a painter and printmaker. I love all those art forms, but there is something about time-based art, that happens as you see it in music or theatrical work, that has always attracted me."
Growden also is the co-founder and producer of COVERT, a site-specific performance series. His partner in that effort is John Law, originally one of the founders of the Burning Man festival, who has been an integral part of such performance units as Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society.
"At COVERT events, the audience shows up and has no idea where they are going," Growden explains. "They are given directions and special instructions. Every event is different, and not always legal. They don't even know what they are doing. It can involve dance, music, theater, drawing pictures or telling stories. It just takes place that one time, and in the moment."
COVERT events draw on the concept of art as a community ritual, he says.
Speaking of community, Growden is making an effort to get to know each place he plays on the current tour—kinda like that 10 days he spent in Tucson years ago. He's taking his lead from the slow-food movement that is prevalent in San Francisco and growing in popularity in Tucson.
"So I'm doing this thing called the 'Slow Tour,' and I'll be in Tucson from the 12th to 17th. I'm hoping to meet with local musicians, maybe do some radio interviews, a singing workshop. It's all part of really being in a town. Before that, I'm spending a number of days in Phoenix, and then moving on to similar stays in Houston, Dallas and Austin.
"If I can pull it off, it's a much more sustainable situation than one night in one city."