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A magic flute with crossover tones.

The setting may be a modern apartment in the South Bronx, but the ritual is as old as the Spanish presence in the New World. Atop a refrigerator in the small kitchen, a makeshift alter glows to life as the candles are lit. Dave Valentin has just returned home from his first tour to Venezuela, and a moment to reflect on his extraordinarily successful life and its fruits is his first priority. It is a highly personalized observance. A feather from his per bird Pepe, a photo of family members, a cigar and some pocket change are among objects the candlelight reveals.

At 40, the New York-born musician has a great deal to be thankful for. For over a decade, he has been widely recognized as one of the masters of the flute. His recordings have topped sales and popularity polls and his growing stardom has prompted tours from the Far East to Europe and most points in between. And although his culture has produced generations of supremely talented musicians who have won wide fame with Latin American audiences, the Puerto Rican is virtually alone when it comes to translating that talent into a commodity eagerly sought by the non-Hispanic mainstream audience in the United States.

A percussionist when he auditioned and was accepted for enrollment in New York's High School of Music and Art, Valentin's first interest in the flute came not through some noble desire to expand his knowledge of music, but through the prospect of a teen romance. "I wanted to meet this girl who played the flute," he laughs, "that's how the whole thing started! It had nothing to do with the flute--I just wanted to talk to her, and say something like, |Hey, show me a scale."

The ploy may not have led to love, but it did lead him to take the instrument seriously. When he played something for the young woman, she complimented him. "I really got excited," Valentin recalls today. "She said, |Gee, it takes people weeks to do what you just did.'" It was all the positive reinforcement he needed. Serious work at home, listening to recordings by jazz masters like Herbie Mann (with whom Valentin recorded a recent album), and private lessons with Hubert Laws, a popular jazz flautist known for his classical technique, soon placed the youngster in the vanguard of up-and-coming musicians in New York.

In the early 1970s, he was playing with leading Latin bands in the city. But it was his ability to "crossover" that won him work with big name jazz artists like singer Patti Austin, guitarist Lee Ritenour and pianist Dave Grusin. Indeed, he had so impressed Grammy and Emmy winner Grusin that when the pianist/composer and his partner Larry Rosen started their own record company in 1978, Dave Valentin was the first artist they signed. Experts at producing and promoting slick instrumental jazz aimed at a mass audience, the fact that GRP Records was also the first company to fully realize the technological value of digital recording techniques and the Compact Disc format all added to its success and the popularity of artists like Dave Valentin.

Born in New York to parents from Mayaguez, Valentin was nine years old when he first visited Puerto Rico. It was also his first encounter with a person who would play a strong spiritual role in his life, his grandfather, Santiago Bolote Ramirez. Contact became less frequent over the years, and by the time Valentin returned to Mayaguez 26 years later to perform with an all-star band, he assumed that his grandfather had passed away. At the concert, he asked the crowd if anyone knew where his grandfather was buried. "After the performance," Valentin recalls today, "an old man came forward and said, |I know Santiago. He hangs out in the plaza every morning!'"

So after over a quarter of a century of separation, the two were reunited. On a subsequent trip, the octogenarian presented his grandson with several homemade flutes. "You think these play?" the old timer, a non-musician, asked his famous relative. Cut from the legs of a kitchen chair, the air holes rounded with nothing more sophisticated than a pair of common household scissors, the primitive instruments played perfectly. How the 88-year-old man knew precisely where to cut the holes to make an instrument that would play in key is a mystery--to all but Dave Valentin. It was just another part of the spirit he believes directs his life and influences his music.

"I think music keeps me in balance," he says. "I thank God for giving me the opportunity to do this." Born and baptized a Roman Catholic, he strayed from formal religion in his teens. "There's no priest who can tell me about Jesus Christ--I know," he states. "You have to find your own way. There are a lot of different roads to the same place." His debt is acknowledged on most of his recordings, where he thanks "My Lord and Creator for His never-ending love."

Valentin's professional success stems from his willingness to investigate and absorb any style of music. "I'm not a beboper," he says, referring to the technically demanding brand of modern jazz pioneered by artists like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s. "But I do consider myself a world artist."

Having long mastered the common European model of flute, recent live performances and recordings have found him experimenting with different members of the world flute family. Pan pipes from Bolivia, a bamboo bass flute from Peru, a pan flute from Romania and assorted wooden and porcelain models from Thailand, Japan and elsewhere are now part of his collection. On one trip to an exotic locale, he frankly told a master native flautist, "I really apologize for playing these instruments, because I don't know your music." The man replied, "Yes, but you play from your heart, and what you play is true. There's nothing wrong with that."

He tells a story about learning how to master the charanga, a Cuban style of music that prominently features the flute. He went to a concert featuring the king of that genre, Jose Fajardo, and spent hours studying the musician's methods. After the performance, it took additional hours to have Fajardo diagram the notation and fingering--all for the sake of authenticity.

Valentin can, and has many times in his career, meet the most exacting demands of his musically orthodox Latin American brothers. Yet he can take a Cuban rhythm like the montuno and use it as the foundation for a pop song and make something many cultures can understand. That is what he did with "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and the version became a substantial radio hit, introducing an authentic tropical sound to new ears for perhaps the first time.

Adept at mixing the essence of Afro-Caribbean styles with self-penned songs, jazz standards and world music anthems, like compositions by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, Valentin's music is the perfect tonic for the nineties: Soothing and complex at the same time, brimming with optimism and executed with a highly personal flair.

"Here is a human being, a musician who is playing with great simpatico," says friend and admirer Bill Cosby, who believes Valentin truly loves his flute. "I can see Dave sleeping with it!"

Maybe he does play the flute in his sleep--could that be why he does it so well? "The whole spectrum of what the flute is about in all the countries of the world?" he states with sincere conviction, "that's what I want to bring to the people." Mark Holston, a lifelong musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:flutist Dave Valentin
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:1283
Previous Article:Sculptor of inner rhythms.
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