PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 6, 2008

Dave Valentin Goes with His Soul

by Jim Newsom

Boys in the ‘50s generally wanted to grow up to be baseball players, firemen, rocket scientists or cowboys like Roy Rogers. Most ended up in other fields as adults. But Dave Valentin had a different dream, one that he made come true.

“I knew I was going to be a musician since I was born,” he said in a recent telephone conversation. “I told my mother ‘I want to play music’ in Spanish. She called my father and said, ‘he wants to be a musician.’

“He looked at me and said if you want to be a musician, do the best you can. If you decide that’s what you want to do, I want you to be the best. He didn’t say be a doctor or a lawyer, he said go with your soul; go with what you believe in. If you believe in it, you can do it.”

Valentin has been doing it for a long time. The premiere jazz flutist of his generation, he’s an icon of Latin Jazz, a one-time heavy on smooth jazz radio, an adventurous musical explorer who puts his distinctive mark on everything he touches. Thursday night, he brings his quintet to the Granby Theater for the Port Folio Weekly Music Series of the Virginia Arts Festival.

“Every day is a new day,” he said, “and every day is a day of discovery. That’s the way I look at it. I search for things that have not been recorded in a long time and then I revamp it into Latin jazz. I also love ballads.”

He absorbed the multi-cultural rhythms of New York City growing up in the South Bronx.

“My parents are Puerto Rican,” he said. “My father was a Merchant Marine; my mother was a working housewife. They were great parents. My mother died when I was thirteen but she gave me enough information to carry me through. My father was the most intelligent man I ever met. He used to talk to me about going to Brazil and Russia, going here and there. And I actually found a picture of my father in Red Square in Moscow. So when I played Moscow I took the same picture of myself in the same place.”

His dad’s travels brought young Dave the tools of his chosen trade:

“I was playing Latin percussion since I was seven years old. My father bought me some bongos, congas and little percussion stuff from Brazil. I played with this band called Conjunto Libre—Manny Oquendo and Conjunto Libre, which was the greatest dance band of all time. It was like the Art Blakey of Latin. I did that for seven years.”

His introduction to the flute at age seventeen came about in the classic way that many guys discover their destiny.

“It was to meet a girl,” he laughed. “I asked her to show me something. So she showed me a scale on the flute and I played it immediately. She said that was impossible. I borrowed the flute and I bought a Herbie Mann record. And I learned ‘Comin’ Home Baby.’

“About three weeks later I went back—I was just interested in her, you know, I didn’t care about the flute. I played it and I thought, ‘I know I’ve got her.’ After I finished playing she said, ‘I’ve been playing for three years and you come in three weeks and play like that.’ And I said, ‘Yes baby.’ She said, ‘Go away! Don’t talk to me no more, get out of here.’

“So I lost the girl but I got the flute.”

He immediately fell in love with the instrument and poured all his musical passion into it.

“I was going to the High School of Music and Art as a percussion major,” he said. “This guy Bill Fischer was teaching at Music and Art. I got a musicians directory and called up Hubert Laws on the pay phone. I told him ‘my name is David Valentin, I know Mr. William Fischer, he’s one of my teachers and he asked me to call you. I want to take lessons.’

“He said, ‘Yeah, $15.00 a pop. See you next week.’ And that was it—boom! He taught me to tighten up on the lower register and loosen up on the higher. Most people do the opposite—tighten on the top register and loosen on the bottom. He said, ‘Get the metallic sound on the bottom of the flute.’”

Valentin’s tone is more akin to the classically trained Laws than it is to the grittier timbre that Herbie Mann employed. But the Latin and Afro-Cuban influences give his music a funky bite that makes it unique and irresistible. When music biz veterans Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen were forming their GRP label in the late ‘70s, he was the first artist they signed.

“I was recording a demo with [jazz violinist] Noel Pointer,” Valentin explained, “and we were recording one of my compositions. This guy with glasses comes out of the engineering booth and says, ‘I think we’re gonna use that on Noel’s record; do you have any more material?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I got tons of stuff.’

“That was Larry Rosen. We did a demo with just guitar, bongos and flute. He gave it to Dave Grusin. About a month later I got a call from Dave Grusin who said, ‘We’re starting a new label. Would you like to do a record?’ That first album sold about 90,000 units.”

His most recent recording, released in the name of longtime collaborator, pianist Bill O’Connell, is a return to the basic format of that first demo thirty years ago.

“We just came out with Triple Play on Savant,” he said. “It’s piano, flute and congas. It’s one of the most creative records I have ever made.”

He’s covered a lot of territory over the years. His last two HighNote releases, World on a String and Come Fly With Me, took his music in new directions while remaining true to the muse that first guided him on those initial outings.

His bandmates Thursday night have been with him for a good part of that journey. O’Connell and drummer Robby Ameen go way back to the early days, bassist Lincoln Goines has played with him for years, and legendary conguero Richie Flores was featured on the last few albums.

“That’s a power band,” Valentin said. “It’s great to have people who believe in the concept and you give them the freedom to do what they want to do. We don’t even have to talk when we play. I just look and boom, we’re there!”

Dave Valentin Quintet
Thursday, May 8 – 7:30 pm
Granby Theater
282-2800; www.virginiaartsfest.com

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.


December 12, 2006
A review of Dave Valentin's Come Fly with Me.

"Jazz from the Latin Side"
November 1, 2005
A review of World on a String.

"Jazz Recordings"
October 29, 2002
A review of Caribbean Jazz Project's The Gathering featuring Dave Valentin.

"Herbie Mann's New Groove"
July 9, 2002
An interview with jazz flute legend Herbie Mann.