Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 30, 2001

DeShannon Higa in performance, playing his distinctive
red trumpet at the Musicians' Union Studio 6.

Get jazzed

DeShannon's da man

Jazz Blowout

By Gary C. W. Chun
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

IF THERE EVER were to be a local casting call for actors auditioning for a musician's role, DeShannon Higa should rise above the group. Not that he has any thespian-type aspirations outside of his trumpet playing. But the guy just looks the part. The 31-year-old cuts a handsome, well-groomed figure, he's got the stylin' soul patch and goatee, he's thoughtful and well-spoken and he can actually play an instrument ... very well, thank you.

And with a colorful name like DeShannon (his father was inspired by the name and music of '60s singer/songwriter Jackie DeShannon), it seems that Higa was destined to make something of his life.

Trumpet player DeShannon Higa banters with
the crowd during a jam session break at
the Musicians' Union Building.

Over the past several years, Higa has distinguished himself with his commanding versatility on the trumpet. Besides his occasional sidework with veteran contemporary/fusion jazz band Nueva Vida (see John Berger's accompanying story and a review of the band's long-awaited CD), Higa has bigger plans for his own band, X-faCtoR, who not only will be one of the featured bands at this weekend's Great Hawaiian Jazz Blowout, but also has started what hopes to be a longterm stint Thursday nights at the Musicians' Union building on Kapiolani Boulevard in the well-worn but comfy spaciousness of Studio 6.

Higa's judicious phrasing and smooth vocal quality on the horn makes him well-versed for all kinds of jazz, as evident last Thursday in a set that showcased the more familiar work of icons Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.

You can't accuse Higa of not being a forward-thinking musician. It's his hopes that the weekly gigs will live up to its ambitious billing as "Utopia at Studio 6."

"The idea at the heart of 'Utopia' is innovation," he said. "To fuse different styles of music and media, all to enhance the auditory experience of jazz. I want this to help create a bigger, new market for jazz, where it's not just a musician's music, but to show that the music's still alive and well, and still a valid artform."

Besides his core X-faCtoR band featuring fellow Nueva Vida member/guitarist Robert Shinoda, Dan Del Negro on piano and the teen-age rhythm duo of Abe Lagrimas and Shawn Conley (of Waipahu and Punahou schools, respectively), Higa has invited a painter to create with the band (whose two finished works were subsequently sold later that same night), had his wife Rocky Brown sit in with the band, performed Miles Davis' seminal "Kind of Blue" album in its entirety and, just last night, delved into the acid jazz sound with preprogrammed drum loops and hip-hop beats.

"I also want to invite a chef in, to do a cooking show with jazz ... even a comic!" Higa said.

"But I don't just ask anybody. They have to be people who can enhance and complement the setting," he said. "I want the audience to get into the experience and have the art appreciated for its own sake."

Gabe Baltazar, left, on sax and DeShannon
Higa on trumpet at jam session held at
the Musicians' Union Building.

Higa and his band will be performing tomorrow night at the Blowout, with guest singer Keahi Conjugacion, the sister of a couple of equally musical-talent brothers, Noland and Tony. X-faCtoR's progressive jazz repertoire will be featured.

"This all started back in Hilo, at the age of nine," Higa said, "where I initially wanted to play drums in the school band, but my band teacher said there were already too many drummers! So I started off on cornet and then later trumpet."

In 1981, he and his family moved to Honolulu, where Higa, at age 12, developed his sightreading skills by playing in his church's orchestra.

When he turned 13, he discovered Maynard Ferguson. "A friend of mine in the orchestra who played trombone turned me on to one of his albums. That guy played up in the stratosphere sometimes! It was catchy, filled with swing -- it just got up all inside my bones!"

By his teen-age years, Higa's skills were such that he was able to get the first-trumpet chair regularly after his auditions. He remembers that his first paying gig was as a 16-year-old and a member of the orchestra for a Honolulu Theatre for Youth production of "Peter Pan." His influences on trumpet grew from the eye-opening brashness of Ferguson to more sublime players like "Miles, Dizzy, Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard."

When asked how he thought he was as a trumpeter while attending Kaimuki High, Higa laughed and, after a moment of reflection, said in a self-deferential way that "I probably did better than I think I did."

Noel Okimoto, below, jams on drums.

After graduating from Kaimuki in 1988, Higa attended Oral Roberts University, the charismatic center of learning in Tulsa, Okla. Although he majored in business, Higa continued to play music, as part of Roberts' son Richard's television ministry. "Music was still my passion," he said, and he finished his last two years of schooling back home at the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.

Higa has constantly pushed himself as a musician, and in 1993, went to Los Angeles to audition for a spot on the Disney All-American College Band. "I was told that nobody from Hawaii ever flew out to L.A. to try out for the band," he said, "but I wanted to test myself and try to hang with the best." It was no surprise, considering the path of his life up 'til then, that he got in and played all that summer at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

"It was five days a week, four shows a day," Higa remembers. "And we would have ridiculous eight-hour rehearsals after the park closed, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"What I learned from that experience is how to function as a working musician, where the caliber of people surrounding me is extremely high -- and how to survive in that kind of environment, because you never know where your career will take you. I learned to keep an open mind musically and take whatever came my way."

What followed college graduation that fall was a steady succession of cruise shipline gigs and, after hearing about an opening with the Royal Hawaiian Band in 1995, Higa auditioned for the slot, and, guess what?, became a band member for the next three-and-a-half years.

"It was such a rewarding job," Higa said. "I developed such strong friendships within the band and it was nice just to play for a living."

In '99 he left the band, and now plays the occasional gig as a much-respected and well-liked trumpeter, including being a regular member of Nueva Vida's horn section. "Nueva Vida has shown me what is possible to do with music in Hawaii, where we can make a living, having to cater to an audience's wishes by playing commercial pop, funk and R&B, but with the heart of the band still be set in creativity.

"With X-faCtoR, we pull in more jazz-based elements," Higa said.

"What I'm trying to do with the band and these weekly gigs is open the door to more expressive kinds of music, because I know there are tons of other musicians out there who want to do the same thing. I want to make this a huge showcase for local talent."

Former Seawind vocalist Pauline Wilson returns to
stage as one of the performers at the Great Hawaiian
Jazz Blowout.

The 5th Annual
Great Hawaiian
Jazz Blowout

Place: Bakken Hall, Mid-Pacific Institute, 2445 Kaala
Time: 2-10 p.m. tomorrow & noon-8 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $12 per day or $20 for both days (discounts for seniors & military), $5 students, children under 12 free
Call: 734-0397 or e-mail


2 p.m.--Vocalist Marjorie Sauve
3 p.m.--Pianist Tennyson Stephens
4 p.m.--Boogie (duo blues)
5 p.m.--Vocalist Rachel Gonzales
6 p.m.--Vocalist Teresa Bright
7 p.m.--Trombonist Curtis Abe/Saxist Todd Yukimoto
7:30 p.m.--Trumpeter DeShannon Higa/Vocalist Keahi Conjugacion
8:30 p.m.--Vocalist Marianne Mayfield


Noon--Vocalist Mary Ann Hurst/Ukulele player Lyle Ritz
1 p.m.--Vocalist Pauline Wilson
2 p.m.--Partners in Time (Middle Eastern fusion jazz)
3 p.m.--Guitarist Chris Planas
4 p.m.--Mistura (Brazilian)
5 p.m.--Nueva Vida
6 p.m.--Swingin' Tradewinds Jass Band with guests cornetist John Norris & gospel singer LaJoyce Daniel-Cain
7 p.m.--Vocalist Harvey Thompson

Also: Food and beverage will be available in the adjacent outdoor garden court, featuring Creole and Cajun specialties by Kevin's Two Boots Restaurant and BBQ and soul food by Deb's Restaurant.

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