EAU CLAIRE — It’s likely not a coincidence that the four co-headliners of “A Night With Local Legends” all have vivid memories of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival.
The concert, part of this year’s virtually presented festival, features percussionist-keyboardist-singer Sean Carey, saxophonist Sue Orfield, bassist Jeremy Boettcher and pianist Josh Gallagher. They’ll be backed by the award-winning UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensevmble I.
Speaking in separate phone interviews, the four guest artists recounted their experiences as students, clinicians, adjudicators or working musicians at an annual event that is one of the nation’s oldest and largest festivals with performance and educational components. In other words, count them among the thousands of past attendees who have loved the music and found valuable learning opportunities.
“I’ve actually been attending the Jazz Festival concerts since I was quite young,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher’s parents would take him to the festival, and eventually he got to know Robert Baca, artistic director of Jazz Fest and director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire, and perform with at the event, which he continues to do.
“So yeah, I was excited to be on that headliner stage,” he said. “It was an exciting thing for me because that concert for me has always been a big deal.”
The visiting guest artists for Jazz Fest also stood out to Carey, which he recalled from his days at UW-Eau Claire and as a student at Badger High School in Lake Geneva.
“That was huge in a place where most of the bands were from small towns in Wisconsin, and don’t really have a lot of access to see that caliber of musician,” he said. “So it’s sort of like the big thing every year that was really educational and inspiring.’”
This year the virtual audience will see four highly accomplished performers, as their bios attest:
Carey: Percussionist, singer, producer and songwriter most known for his work with Bon Iver and his own project, S. Carey. Concert tour, with Bon Iver, to North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Winner of two Grammy Awards for his performance on the album “Bon Iver.” Three full length records with S. Carey, including “Hundred Acres” in 2018 and last December’s release of the “All We Grow” (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition). Collaborates with musicians across the country and stays involved in the Eau Claire music community.
Orfield: Has played with many musical greats, including Bo Diddley, Bobby McFerrin, The Indigo Girls, Ann Wilson (Heart), Dizzy Gillespie, Ivan Neville and Jo Dee Messina. Tours internationally with several groups, including The Tiptons Sax Quartet & Drums (Seattle/NYC), Junkyard Jane (Seattle) and Ellen Whyte (Portland). Plays locally with The Sue Orfield Band, The Jazz Women All Stars, AcoustiHoo, Take That, The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra, Catya’s Trio, Two Rivers and The Butanes.
Boettcher: Award-winning bassist, performs with top artists around the country, including S. Carey. Toured the world with Sean Carey and Richard Johnson. Performed extensively as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha in Qatar and Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai in China. Performs gigs regularly in the Chippewa Valley.
Gallagher: Attended Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship and was selected as the pianist in the Brubeck Institute Jazz Sextet during the 2004-2005 school year, where he performed with guest clinicians Bobby Watson, Rufus Reid, Jimmy Heath, artistic director Christian McBride, and institute founder Dave Brubeck, among others. He has studied with Geoffrey Keezer, Joanne Brackeen, Hal Crook, Greg Hopkins, Phil Wilson, and Laura Caviani.
All four of the musicians have performed with each other previously.
History of success
Orfield has gained an appreciation for the festival as a performer, clinician and adjudicator.
“I think it’s well run,” she said. “I think that the hearts of the people that run it are very much in the right place. There’s an educational aspect, of course, with all the high school bands, and all the adjudication and all the clinicians.”
Orfield, as with the others, praised the quality of the annual guest artists and Baca for his running of the festival and direction of the jazz studies area at UW-Eau Claire.
“Baca continues to just have amazing jazz bands,” she said. “I played with them again this week and these kids are so good. It’s crazy. How can they be that good when they’re that young? They really do a fantastic job, they really do.”
Jazz Ensemble I has won eight DownBeat Awards, most recently in 2018 in the Outstanding Performance category, and has had two albums nominated for Grammy Awards.
Like his UW-Eau Claire classmate Carey, Boettcher began his appreciation for Jazz Fest while attending as a high school student. He continues to take part now as a clinician, adjudicator and performer.
“I just think it’s really fun and exciting,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of it. I think people just have a really good time coming to it. And then they want to come back and tell their friends.”
Boettcher is looking forward to being a guest artist at the “Local Legends” concert.
“As a bass player, you don’t always get to be a featured soloist with a big band,” he said. “So I was really excited to be able to do that.”
Working with a large jazz ensemble also will be something Boettcher will savor.
“Getting to work with a big band in general is really fun,” he said. “You don’t get to do that as much once you graduate from college because there’s just less big bands than small group opportunities, I would say.”
For the concert, some of the music will be Carey compositions hearkening back to the first Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. For that event, at which Bon Iver headlined, S. Carey’s set featured the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I, and “Local Legends” will reprise selections from the memorable show.
“That went so well,” Carey said of the 2015 festival date. “It will be a cool addition to the concert because it’s using the sound of the big band, but it’s not traditional big band writing or style at all. I think it will be a nice contrast.”
Other pieces that will be performed during the concert are arrangements written by Gallagher. One is the jazz standard “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which he has performed with his small groups and solo. Another is the show’s finale, his arrangement of “I Want to Be Happy,” a Vincent Youmans song from the 1920s Broadway show “No, No, Nanette.”
“It brings all the headliners onto the stage at the same time,” Gallagher said. “It’s supposed to be kind of the pinnacle of the whole concert. Everybody’s there all at once, everybody’s featured, and it’s exciting, and so I think we accomplished that goal.”
The musicians acknowledged another reason they were looking forward to the concert: the dearth of performing opportunities for the past year. As Carey put it, “Oh man. I think right now just any opportunity to play music … you have to take that.”
Orfield too alluded to COVID-19’s impact: “It’s been real skinny in terms of gigging opportunities, so it’s fun to be working at something again and really dreaming up how to get to a good place musically and all that. It’s cool.”
Like his fellow guest artists, Gallagher acknowledged his performance calendar has been “almost empty” for the past year. But he sees reason for optimism.
“Now all of a sudden, even within the past couple of weeks or so, I’m starting to get gig offers again,” he said. “So things are looking up.”