EAU CLAIRE — Sue Orfield’s impassioned approach to the saxophone even can be heard in her answer to the question: How did she choose the flourishing career that has led to performances on local, national and international stages?
“I really love this question,” she said in a phone conversation, chuckling. “I’ve answered the how did I choose the saxophone many times because I remember it.”
The Menomonie native, now of Eau Claire, had played piano since first grade, “and I was definitely a little musical nerd right from the get-go,” she said. But in fifth grade, she and her classmates got to choose a band instrument.
“I remember distinctly being on the yellow school bus with my brother, who was two years older than me, and hearing this sound on the radio of the school bus. And I was like, ‘What is that sound?’ because I didn’t know. And Eric, my brother, told me, ‘That’s a saxophone.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s what I’m going to play. That’s what I want.’”
“I was just really determined, and I marched into what was the library at that time, and (the teacher) was like, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to play that big saxophone.’ And so from that moment, I actually started on the tenor. It’s still the only instrument I really play. I play the piano still, and I dabble at other things, but mostly that’s my instrument of choice.”
Orfield appreciates the tenor’s capabilities, which she has demonstrated in the genres of rock, jazz, blues, country and even bluegrass. But she has a simpler explanation for the allure: “That’s just what I hear. It is my musical voice.”
A quick glance at her schedule in the coming days reveals how generously she shares that voice with audiences:
• From 4 to 7 p.m. today, Orfield is with Catya’s Trio at Paradise Shores, 26364 Highway M in Holcombe.
• From 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, she leads a jazz trio with pianist Josh Gallagher and bassist Jeremy Boettcher at The Lakely, 516 Galloway St.
• From 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, she’s part of the pop-rock group Rada Dada at Jake’s Supper Club, E5690 Highway D, outside of Menomonie.
• At 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 18, Take That Back, the jazz quintet she co-leads with Joan Hutton, performs in the gallery at Artisan Forge Studios, 1106 Mondovi Road, Eau Claire.
Besides the aforementioned groups, Orfield leads the award-winning blues-rock-oriented Sue Orfield Band and plays in: the internationally touring Tiptons Saxophone Quartet and Drums, Jazz Women All Stars, Acousti-Hoo, Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra, Two Rivers, Yata, Sinz & Orfield, and FLOWt, a collaboration of live painting and live music with artist Terry Meyer.
That’s not all. She plays in a Twin Cities-based wedding band, whose dates are all private; works freelance gigs; teaches private lessons for saxophone, improvisation and “pretty much any wind instrument”; and works as a teacher clinician, guest artist and adjudicator at events such as the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and the jazz camp at Shell Lake Arts Center.
“That’s how I try to knit it all together to make a life out of music,” she said.
Orfield got her music degree from Lawrence University, in Appleton, a school where she learned she actually could turn her love for music into a career. After graduation, she and a college friend decided they wanted to live someplace new.
“We were both music majors and were like, ‘Let’s go move away,’ and we somewhat randomly picked Seattle and drove out there, packed up everything we owned in my car because I had a Ford Fairlane at the time.”
And everything did indeed fit into the Ford Fairlane, “which goes to show you we had really nothing,” Orfield said. “Ninety percent of it was records at that point.”
Once they got to their furnished apartment, they both got jobs unrelated to music.
“I was a secretary for a while,” Orfield said. “I tried painting for a while — I was terrible at that, so I kind of got fired from that. I was a temp secretary for a while.”
Eventually, Orfield committed to her goal.
“At some point, I was just like, ‘You know what? I think I can just leap off this cliff,’” she said. “And I actually put an ad in the paper for teaching. It was very bold because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I charged a really tiny amount at the beginning so I could learn how to teach, and I told all of them, ‘Look, I’ve never taught before, but I know what I’m doing, so let’s see if we can figure it out together.’”
Orfield got what she called “a nice, big teaching studio.”
“I realized I could probably make a living if I did it this way,” she said. “I stopped with the part-time job and just dove into music, and that’s when my career really started. It was quite a leap of faith, but I was like, ‘I’m just going to do it.’”
Expression of joy
Joan Hutton, who plays multiple woodwind instruments and co-leads, with Orfield, Take That Back, finds her friend conveys a love of making music in her playing and her personality.
“She’s just a warm, joyful, fun person, and she plays music that way too: joyful,” Hutton said in a phone interview.
Hutton also spoke about the voice Orfield has developed through the saxophone.
“She’s got this big sound, and this big, commanding sound and presence as a musician,” Hutton said. “I think audiences are kind of pulled into that when she starts playing a solo. It’s just very commanding and very powerful.”
Greg Johnson, owner of Artisan Forge, where Orfield has a rehearsal space/teaching studio, said Orfield fits right into the artists community.
“One of the things about Sue is she lives and breathes music,” Johnson said. “She has got this energy about her. She bops in the door and she’s in her studio space, and the music’s cranking. She’s in there practicing scales, she’s jamming out to tunes, she’s got her students in there, they’re doing practices, and she’s got this energy level that is just unmatched. And it is so much fun.”
Playing her role
In some situations, such as the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra, Orfield sees herself as part of the ensemble.
“I am one of many horn players who are making this thing happen,” she said. “At that moment I am not really so concerned about being the individual musician that I am. It’s much more like, ‘Hey, I need to make the band sound good.’ I’m a support character, and that is the truth.”
In other contexts, though, her goal is to stand out.
“With the Orfield Band or Take That Back, what I’m trying to do is let my voice be heard musically and also compositionally,” she said. “I’m soloing, I’m improvising and I have a musical voice, and it’s my job to let that be heard.”
Needless to say, she’s delighted to be out performing again as COVID cases decline. In fact, she still remembers the exact day she had to cut short a European tour with The Tiptons: March 13, 2020.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “My summer is really full already, and I’m super happy. Most of my weekends are full. I’ve got lots of other shows in the middle of the week.”
It’s difficult to describe the sensation, but she came up with an apt metaphor: “It’s like how you used to feel on Christmas morning when you were 7 years old. It’s like that feeling.”
It would seem, though, that making music feels that joyful to Orfield much of the time.