Local veteran melds jazz and rock

PHOTO BY Stefan Snijders
PHOTO BY Stefan Snijders
PHOTO BY Stefan Snijders
PHOTO BY Stefan Snijders

Stefan Snijders

Glazed by the stark blue lights, 60-year-old Dereck Higgins stood on stage like the long-lost child of jazz and modern music he has become, not lost as to place, but lost to the outside world.

He stalks the stage, his long hands caressing tones out of his Ibanez bass with a calculated, elegant violence. Sometimes, grooving, other times near-spastic, always in tune with his own rhythm and groove that he sets down.

He commanded the stage, at one with the unquestion-ably original world of soundscape created.
Flanked by UNO Music alum James Cuato Ballarin on saxophone and synthesizer, and complemented by local drummer John Joseph Evans, Higgins and his trio pushed the envelope Saturday night with a set of extended instrumental jams at the Barley Street Tavern in Benson.

At times moody, introverted and morose, other times manic, cacaphonic and caterwauling, each piece meandered off the beaten track but always found its way back to balance in its own disjointed structure. Not a show for the faint of heart or those without patience, it was a set that was worth the wait for those who were willing to take the time to get to know the music of these men.

Dereck has played a part of the local Omaha music scene as far back as the 1970s, but his connection with music in Omaha – and to the greater world of music – extends back to the days of the beat musician, the artistry and motion of jazz. Dereck’s father was a session musician who played for and with many great names, including Lio-nel Hampton and Stan Kenton.

Legends passed through his family’s residence in the 1950s and 1960s. The Higgins family laid claim to friends.

Red Holloway, Johnny Griffin, whom Higgins describes as “like uncles to me.” Even Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and others would come visit and jam.

“I remember once sitting on John Coltrane’s lap,” he said of the great saxophonist. “My father was a connection for many of these guys when they came through town.”

Although Higgins studied graphic design and drafting while he at-tended UNO in the mid-1970s, he stayed strong with music. Forays to other parts of the country only further forged his love for music itself.

Dereck’s inspiration for music came from both his early life experiences seeing jazz musicians in the flesh, and a love for records. He was selected and bio’ed in last month’s Record Collector maga-zine. Higgins’ current record col-lection boasts over 15,000 records Higgins dabbled quite a bit in playing music as a youth, but didn’t truly begin a serious music career with other musicians until his senior year of high school.

“I had reconnected with some childhood friends of mine, who were playing,” Higgins said. “I didn’t have an instrument then but they did, and they told me, ‘hey, you’re not doing anything. come on!’ So that’s how it started.”

Although his primary instrument is the bass guitar, Higgins is versed in a variety of musical equipment. He plays keyboards and does some programming, as evidenced by several of his recorded releases, including his work on the soundtrack to the 2013 independent film “Fly-over Country.”

Higgins also plays guitar and sings on his 2001 record “Nice.” “I’m really proud of my work on ‘Flyover.’ Very proud,” he said.

Higgins often works with drum programs, but he also knows his way around a drum kit. A former jazz drummer, he believes his all-around approach to music over the years has helped him to tune into what he does and doesn’t want when composing. It may also help him be selective of the people with whom he plays music.

With such a long-standing pedigree of musicianship, it would make sense if Higgins was a tough performer to work with. But when a person sits and talks with him, it’s obvious the opposite is true. His
cohorts for the night told a tale of intensity, but with strong ties.

“I met Dereck in 2007 through (lo-cal Saddle Creek label band) Son, Ambulance, toured around with them for a bit,” said James Cuato Ballarin. He likened paying with Higgins to playing with family.

“Just hanging out, having fun, it’s great. But also, playing with Dereck, it causes you to face a good deal of reality, because he pushes to put it all out there,” Ballarin said. “A lot of people will post things on their Facebook pages about stupid things, and yeah, it’s laughs. With him it’s all about music. But then
he’s just an incredible guy who gets it.”

The youngest member of the trio, John Joseph Evans, is 20. Evans works part time and devotes pretty much the rest of his time de-veloping his musical craft. His connection with Higgins, he said, stemmed from Luke Politicking and the local trio Working Man.

“We started jamming with Luke and it just kept rolling from there,” Evans said.

That experience, Evans said, made him look forward to spending more time working with Higgins.

“It’s awesome that I’m young and getting to see this scene change and grow at the same time, and be in the middle of it. Working with Dereck is the same. He’s intense, but he’s intense about the music,” Evans said.

“Dereck is otherwise just a really cool guy, and great to work with.”
Higgins’ work on Saturday night with Evans and Ballarin as a trio was not his only performance. Prior to the trio’s opening atonic chords, Higgins performed a three-song set of loops, keyboards, and drum machine.

Half trip-hop, half space lounge, the music flowed through the crowd at the Barley Street, many of whom were tap-ping their toes by the end of the first song. This presented a far cry from the dystopian siren songs of the trio.

And lest you think that Dereck Higgins could be pigeonholed into one or two genres of sound, think again. Higgins plays bass with local punk band RAF, who have logged multiple shows in the past two months including an opening set at the Lookout Lounge (formerly The Hideout) for hardcore punk legends 7 Seconds last month. But Higgins keeps busier than that with his artistry.

“RAF is my main gig, I’m also with Son, Ambulance. I have solo work, and I just started this duo with (singer) Carol Rogers, who was with Sergio Mendes’ ‘Brasil ’77’ recently,amazing singer. Strange Attractions is on hold, we just kind of broke up. Working man, with the drummer (John Evans) from tonight, is another improv group. That’s what I can remember right now, and of course I’m writing all the time.”

He had finished his glass of wine, and headed into the night. A man of many habits, all of them musi-cal. It was quiet around the bar again. Losing Dereck Higgins’ harnessed energy after listening to his music and chatting with him is like stepping out of a hurricane into a lead-lined locker. Still air.

Every local music scene would do well to have one of him.