The "It" Guy

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Houston jazz musicians agree on damn few things, but they all seem to sing in harmony when the subject is saxophonist David Caceres. They agree that Caceres has "it," that something extra that separates him from his peers. Caceres is the type of guy who walks into a room and turns heads. He is also the one who, before he even plays a note on stage, just looks like he'll send other musicians scurrying for cover. Once he actually does start playing, his tone and seemingly endless supply of ideas demand attention. Plus, he sings.

"He's a freakin' monster," says Andrew Lienhard, a pianist and native Houstonian now residing in New York City. "I've never, ever heard him sound anything less than amazing."

Houston guitarist Mark Dini agrees: "I never let him solo first on my gigs and records because I would never want to follow him. He's one of the very few musicians that can astonish you with ridiculous chops and instrument command, and simultaneously floor you with emotional connection."

Raised in San Antonio, the 32-year-old Caceres likely inherited some of his talent. His grandfather, a violinist, led a swing band in San Antonio during the '30s and '40s, and his great-uncle played sax with the Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman orchestras. Caceres picked up the saxophone when he was 11 and in high school made the Texas All State Jazz Band for three years. Pretty impressive for a kid who didn't take private lessons during his high school years and who spent more time listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder than John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. Also pretty impressive was getting into the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I thought I was something hot," he recalls. "Then I got to Berklee and just walking down the practice room halls, I was shocked to death," he says with a laugh. "It was a really humbling experience."

Caceres found himself surrounded by world-class talent. His classmates included Danilo Perez, Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart and Geoff Keezer, who are now among the hottest young players in jazz. Being around such talent breeds a certain degree of competition, and Caceres recalls the competitive spirit was good, if sometimes a bit peculiar. Some musicians would put towels over their practice room windows so passersby couldn't see who was playing, or how something was being played. Though he had basically finished his class work in two years, he stuck around for the entire four, immersing himself in Coltrane, Parker, Joe Henderson, Cannonball Adderley and the rest of the usual sax suspects. He also drew lessons from his colleagues. "The best thing about Berklee," Caceres says, "was being able to hear all these players who were influenced by different cultures and different countries."

After graduating in 1989 Caceres moved to New York City. But he wasn't ready for the Big Apple's pressures, and after a year he couldn't justify staying. He wasn't getting many gigs, and his money ran out. "My head wasn't in the right place," Caceres says. "Two weeks would go by without me even picking up my horn. I realized that it was not the right time for New York City."

Caceres moved back home in 1990, then to Houston when he was invited to join the Paul English Quartet. Away from the pressures of New York City, Caceres flourished and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most intelligent improvisers in town. He also proved to be something of a chameleon. Today he leads a bebop trio and the David Caceres Swing Band -- $agrave; la Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, not Brian Setzer, thank you very much. He used to jam with TKoH! but now often plays soul and R&B with Scott Gertner and is also a member of the fusion band Stratus.

"Playing with [Caceres] has made me focus on my own strengths, because they are so different from his," says guitarist Paul Chester, a fellow member of Stratus. "His are speed, continuity, development of ideas. Mine are balance and expression. He can create very long, flawless lines, the Holy Grail of jazz players. He is very in tune, and his sense of time is impeccable. His phrasing is very hip, and he has polyrhythmic licks that are outta site. He's a bit of a show-off, but he's such a nice guy no one holds it against him. Women love him. It's like Beatlemania. If he wasn't such a nice guy, we would all hate him for it."

Since his arrival in Houston almost a decade ago, Caceres has made several recordings, including four with Stratus and two on his own. His first record, Innermost, recorded in 1995, revealed his versatility, mixing bebop selections, chamber pieces and some vocal tracks. Last spring Caceres went into the studio to record his second album, a session that, like Innermost, was to boast a variety of styles and settings. But a funny thing happened when he started recording. The first sessions were pianoless trios, with Houston drummer Sebastian "Bash" Whittaker and New York City bassist Cliff Schmidt. When the three musicians started playing together, they caught fire. After two days of recording, Caceres decided there was enough inspired material from their sessions to compile an album. The result was Trio, released last summer. On the record, Caceres, Bash and Schmidt break though the limited confines of a pianoless format to make it work. Trio is powerful, exploratory and demanding.

As for future CDs, Caceres, who also teaches privately at the University of Houston, hopes to release another this spring, since he already has several tracks in the can from other sessions originally intended for his second album.

Unfortunately for Houston, Caceres might not be around much longer. "I always think about going back [to New York City] because I feel as if that would be taking it to the next level," Caceres says. "When you're in New York, the best players in the world are there. Not to put down any of the players here in Houston, but there are so many players in New York, it's like having 20 Dennis Dotsons, 20 Sebastian Whittakers, 20 Joe LoCascios. I know the way it would have to happen is move there, establish myself in the city, get some exposure there and start taking lessons and really learn how to play with those guys up there. It's a battle between the integrity of the music and the quality of life."

David Caceres performs with Sebastian Whittaker, David Craig and guests on Friday, January 14, at Cezanne, located above the Black Labrador restaurant at 4100 Montrose. Sets begin at 9 p.m. 21 and older only. For more information, call (713)522-9621.

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