David Caceres: Double Threat Coming Forward
The singer/instrumentalist in jazz has a long and honorable tradition. Many of those, though certainly not all, are more known for their singing than playing, especially in the last 20 years or so. But almost universally, they're enjoyed for what they can do, breathing a certain joie de vivre into songs by expressing the lyrics, then augmenting them with playing that makes sense, and in some cases goes well beyond.
Enter David Caceres, an alto saxophonist trained at Berklee School of musicattending with folks like Antonio Hart, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, Diego Urcola, Danilo Perez and Geoffrey Keezerwho kind of stumbled upon the singing thing. He's been honing his vocal skills over the last decade, and consistently blowing his sax in all kinds of musical genres. He emerges more strongly in 2011, with his fourth recording, David Caceres on Sunnyside Records.
"Emerges" is a bit misleading. Caceres has been out there, appearing on self-produced projects, playing music and teaching. Two albums include his vocals, and one is hardcore jazz in a piano-less trio setting. But the new one is on a solid label, produced by Matt Pierson, who has worked with artists like Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau.
It's not laden with jazz standards. Pierson and Caceres have plucked the music from wide sourcesStevie Wonder, James Taylor and Van Morrison, among othersbut also Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. Caceres also writes and isn't fearful of offending anyone by stepping outside the jazz cannon. His voice, soulful and expressive with a nice baritone sound, suits a variety of styles, especially R&B-inflected pop.
"Someone is going to ask, 'Why do you play this kind of music?'" says the Texan who has lived and played in Boston and New York at various times. "My answer is going to be, 'Because I can.' Yes. I'm a jazz musician. I'm a good jazz musician and I know that I can play and I know that I can sing as well. I enjoy being able to do different styles of music."
Outstanding musicians like Aaron Parks, Bill Stewart, Larry Grenadier and Gil Goldstein appear on the album. It's aptly titled, because it is representative of where Caceres is today on his musical journey; a cool recording that showcases a guy who can get emotional content out of a song, and do so while applying interesting melodic and harmonic turns. It kicks off with an excellent interpretation of "Symptom Unknown," from pop singer Maxwell, Caceres' voice in great form, his alto sax an intriguing compliment. The album supplies a slick ride throughout, with the clear influences in his singingStevie Wonder and Donnie Hathawayin evidence throughout. But there are others.
"Frank Sinatra," he says straight off. Caceres, a San Antonio native now living in Houston, didn't really investigate Sinatra much until he got to Berklee. He did so on the recommendation of a classmate. "I thought: 'Strangers in the Night,' 'My Way,' 'New York, New York.,'" he chuckles at the recollection. "Why would I want to listen to that? Then he turned me onto In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol, 1955). I really dug that record and I started to explore all Frank Sinatra's stuff. He really had a grasp of what he was talking about, with his phrasing, his storytelling and his singing.
"I also love Sarah Vaughan. Being a saxophonist and a singer, on the saxophone when you're playing the melody, playing jazz is about putting your own style to it, interpreting the song in your way. When Vaughan would sing a song, she was so good at doing it her own way that sometimes she would completely change the melody, but it was so hip and so cool. From the pop days, Stevie Wonder. Donnie Hathaway. When I was at Berklee, Lalah Hathaway [Donnie' daughter] was a student there as well. She turned me on to a recording that wasn't available to anybody. She had it on cassette. It was her father live at the Bitter End [New York City nightclub], in combination with another live concert out in LA somewhere. I really dug that recording. The passion and the intensity in his singing. You could hear how he influenced Stevie Wonder. So there was that vibe, the soulful vibe, the R&B vibe."
Caceres' album has different jazz and funk vibes. "Round Midnight" might surprise some jazz diehards, with its groove-oriented approach, but it works; a nice, modern-day take.
Explains Caceres, "After I left New York the first time, I would come back. I had a good friend who had a studio near Madison Square Garden. I would stay with him and do some recording with him. We tried to kick off this recording project called the Funk Syndicate. It never really took off. One of the partners in it was Etienne Stadwick, a pianist. I wanted to experiment doing some singing and playing. We recorded two songs. He programmed everything in the studio. One was 'Round Midnight.' The other was 'My Funny Valentine.' That's where I got the idea for 'Round Midnight.' It's even a little different than Etienne's concept of the song. But that's where it comes from."
Leading up to the new CD, Caceres was teaching in Houston and playing all kinds of gigs in 2006, "juggling between the creative aspect and the make-a-living aspect of it." He built a studio in his house, with a new Steinway piano. A friend who used to play it all the time urged him to try New York again, while he lived in the house and played piano, so he could live in the saxophonist's house. "He bugged me for six months. I thought, 'You know what? There's nothing going on here. I'm not married. No kids.' I thought: I need to do it. This is an opportunity. I took off [to New York], and moved in with [guitarist] Mike Moreno." He spent his time "going out. Sitting in. Donny McCaslin would let me sit in different places. Going to the jam sessions."
Caceres did a gig at New York's 55 Bar and Pierson was there. "The next day I got a call from him. He wanted to talk. We got together. He asked me about my career and what I was doing. What I wanted to do. He checked out my other records. I said. 'I would love to record another record. If you're offering to produce it, this is exactly what I need. Someone to produce it so I all I have to worry about is the playing and the singing.' Matt had this vision for the record. The idea was to do a record featuring both my vocals and saxophone. He went to point where he said, 'You might be considered a vocalist/saxophonist rather than the other way around.'
"He said, 'You need to do something that features your vocals, because there are a lot of great sax players, but not many that do both of these things.' That's where it all started." Caceres was doing some writing, but Pierson was sending songs for his consideration as well. "Matt was thinking about marketing and selling CDs, so his concept was to have songs that are by popular people, but are so obscure that unless you're a fan of Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Maxwell, you wouldn't know these songs. But if you see those names on the CD, it was going to catch your eye. So he started introducing me to these different songs. Being a Stevie Wonder fan, I knew both of the songs I have on the record." Others, he didn't know.
He notes, "One of the songs, 'Sacred Path,' is from my third CD. But [Pierson] liked it so much he thought we should rerecord it." One song Carceres wrote was used in the studio, to warm up with Stewart, Parks and Grenadier. "We came out of the gate recording this song and it was a little bit too intense. It didn't fit the vision of the record. But the other one that has lyrics, 'Gratitude,' did make the record."
His experience with those musicians is one he treasures. "These guys were great in the studio. Aaron Parks was really helpful. He was the most vocal in making suggestions for the songs he played on ... I really enjoyed playing with those guys. I really dug the orchestra stuff Gil [Goldstein] arranged. I love the way it sounds. I'm happy about it."
He's aware of musicians like Hancock and Branford Marsalis, who jump into other genres when the spirit moves them. He shares that attitude.
"For me, it was finding a middle ground of finding a soulful aspect, but still being able to improvise. Even Kenny Garrett has his Happy People (Warner Bros., 2002) CD. I have my [all jazz] trio CD." He said the recording "is coming out on a different level market-wise. I am happy with it .
"The order of the songs was created by Matt," Caceres continues. "I understand the order of it, because it's about selling the CDs and having the ones that would get the most airplay toward the front. Then as you back end of the record, there's more improvisational, freer songs on there, which you could actually stretch out on. At this point, with that record I could see myself out there doing gigs where I could do 'Gratitude' or 'Sacred Path' or 'Bird of Beauty,' where it has a form for stretching out a little bit. Or I could see myself doing something straighter and simpler like 'You Make It Easy.' Somehow, we were able to get these different styles on the same record. I think it opens things up for me."
The opening up of Caceres to the world of music began at an early age. It was in his family makeup. His grandfather was a jazz violinist, who led a popular swing orchestra in San Antonio in the 1930s and 1940s. His father was a saxophonist, and that led Caceres to choose sax when he started to play in the junior high school band. He had been playing some piano, starting at about the age of seven.
"There was a record that my grandfather and my great-uncle Ernie Caceres recorded, back late '60s [Ernie Caceres played some saxophone and clarinet with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman]; that was the first jazz record that I started listening to. It introduced me to improvisation and some great jazz standards," he says.
But growing up in Texas, Caceres wasn't hearing much other jazz. Pop music dominated the radio waves. He was an accomplished enough musician to get to Berklee, where his jazz education took off. "I was hearing how much I had to learn, because I was in school with students that had been listening to jazz at a very early age. Like Donny McCaslin. I remember him having this vast language on the saxophone. I remember going up to him and asking who he listened to. He said Joe Henderson. I had never heard of Joe Henderson at that time. That's when I was introduced to a lot of different players. That's when I started checking out different music and got a big education there."
Digging into all those jazz recordings, as well as hearing all the music coming from classmates, was a huge part of his education, maybe more important than the academic side taking part in the classroom. He graduated with a degree in performance (under the name DeLeon, which he went by for a time after his mother remarried) and moved to New York. "Looking back," he adds, "I wish I had picked up an arranging or composition major. The playing was going to come anyway, just from being around all those cats. That was the biggest thing for me. I wanted to be able to improvise and be a performing artist."
As for his own sax influences, "Early on it was Trane [John Coltrane] and Cannonball [Adderley]. While I was grasping the language, bebop, I was also into how people were stretching out, like [Michael] Brecker. Then I checked out Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman and Joe Henderson. All those guys, because I feel like I'm a rhythmic player as well. I got into Branford and his trio because of the freedom and trust they have. They can stretch, time-wise, and still not miss a beat and know exactly where they are. Branford was a big influence on me as far as that's concerned. Also David Sanborn."
At Berklee, like most students, he played in Boston jazz clubs a bit. One of the experiences involved playing in a commercial band called Urban Renewal. He was recommended to the unit by a guy who was leaving for the west coast. Recalls Caceres, "They contacted me. They said, 'We want an alto saxophonist, but we want someone who can sing a couple of songs.' I thought: I don't know the quality of my voice, but I know I can sing a tune. So, what the heck. I auditioned with the band on a gig. Brought in a couple of my tunes. I did a couple of Stevie Wonder songs and they hired me. That's really where the singing started, in that band in Boston.
"I feel like it's grown a lot since those days," Caceres says of his voice. "Even since my first CD, which I did back in '95. I really enjoy singing. The similarities are that they're coming from the same place. With the saxophone, I'm able to stretch out much more than I can vocally. Vocally, I can set the tone of the song, then pick up the saxophone and take it to another level and stretch it out. Explore a little bit more."
He spent about a year in New York. During that time he got the chance to play at a jazz festival out in Cypress, in the Mediterranean Sea. What was to be a couple of weeks turned into a couple of months. "I met a girl there. I picked up a gig. I started doing some studio work," he says, laughing at the memory. "Forget New York City and starving. When I was out there, I thought 'I'm just not ready for New York.' That's when I decided to head back to San Antonio and regroup."
Back in Texas, he soon shifted to Houston where he taught at the renowned High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, an institution that turned out people like Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, and even soul diva Beyonce.
"When I got to Houston and I was teaching at HSPVA, I felt like I was still growing. I remember the fire at that school for checking out new music and passing CDs around. I was caught up in all that. I was in my early-to-mid-20s then. I was influenced by that same passion and fire that was going on at that school. I thought my education continued on even there. I was in charge of the improvisation class and I remember I was trying to teach things that I learned at Berklee and it was stuff these kids already knew, so I had to dig a little deeper. So my education continued on even as a teacher at that school."
His first CD was cut in 1995, "a mixture of stuff. Because my influences are so vast. I wanted to do bunch of different things on that record. There's some instrumental stuff. There's some Monk on there. There's some kind of funky stuff. Freer stuff. The people that were financing the record didn't really say they wanted me to sing on it. But they knew that I did both, so I decided to put them both on the record."
When it came time for his trio record a few years down the road, Caceres said he was "very influenced by the trio setting of Branford Marsalis with Jeff 'Tain' Watts and Robert Hurst. I loved the energy and freedom in that. I decided to record that concept as well. At that time, I was a little frustrated and not really doing what I wanted to be doing musically. That was me going all out and trying to be as creative as possible. It wasn't something I was going to make money off of or market in Texas. But it was very self-satisfying."
Caceres bounced back to New York for a bit, which led to the new CD, but Caceres is still calling Houston home and hopes he gets to tour somewhat with the new recording behind him. "This is a great time in my life. I'm happy with the music. Things are great."
The album also caused him to look a little different at his career moves. He explains, "In listening to this project, I realize the importance of my writing. I feel like I've opened another platform for my compositions. So I'm writing again and getting excited about doing this again and keeping the ball rolling."
David Caceres, David Caceres (Sunnyside Records, 2011)
David Caceres, Reflections (Self Produced, 2006)
David Caceres, Trio (Self Produced, 1999)
David Caceres, Innermost (Self Produced, 1995)
All Photos: Courtesy of David Caceres