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By Jacob Katel
By Michael E. Miller
Dave Valentin has just walked into his Bronx apartment, arriving home after a gig in Costa Rica, to find himself fielding questions on the phone about the shows he's done in Miami. "When was that?" asks the reporter, trying to pin down a particular concert. "When was that?" he asks about another show.
"Time?" Valentin exclaims in exasperation. "Time? Time is irrelevant for me."
The assertion is not without irony, since Valentin's reputation as one of the world's finest jazz flautists rests in part on his command of rhythm -- the musical manifestation of time -- in complex melodic phrasings that cleave to the Latin clave. But maybe for the Concord Vista recording artist with 22 albums to his credit, rhythm is the only measure of time that matters. Beyond chronology, he also escapes geography. He can take up with collaborators at any point on the map, as he will in a performance at the JVC Jazz Festival on Miami Beach tonight with local jazz stalwarts.
Valentin grew up in the South Bronx, where he started out as a precocious percussionist, smacking skins at age five and performing for audiences by age eleven. At sixteen he switched to his main axe in a failed attempt to woo a girl who played the flute at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art.
Percussionist Sammy Figueroa, a recent Miami transplant, remembers Valentin from his own childhood on the mean streets. "I knew Dave since I was eight years old," says Figueroa, who has played on a handful of Valentin's albums and has toured with the flautist around the globe. "We were too busy being brats, poking people in the head, and being total assholes to worry about playing music together."
Figueroa, who has lent his hands to everyone from Miles Davis to Marc Anthony to David Bowie to Bob Dylan, crash-landed in Miami about a year ago. Hoping to put back together the pieces after a disastrous marriage, he joined long-time friend Rachel Faro on the business and production end of her independent Miami-based record label Ashé.
While Figueroa is dedicating most of his energy to the record label, he has had occasion to perform with Valentin during his appearances at the Van Dyke, owned by area restaurateur Mark Soyka. The café's musical director, Don Wilner, who has accompanied Valentin six times, has enjoyed Figueroa's contributions. "I generally don't like to play with percussionists," confesses Wilner. "Usually you get some douche bag who buys a set of bongos and says he's a musician. Sammy's not like that; he's in another league."
Valentin's relationship with Soyka's establishments in Miami began in 1986, when the restaurateur invited him to play at his now-defunct music showcase Downstairs at the Waldorf. Since then the flautist has braved some of the nation's least cultivated jazz fans with some frequency. But unlike more demure jazz talents who enter our shark-infested musical waters, Valentin has been known to bite back with his peculiar brand of humor. Folks who attended the last Miami Beach club date in January may recall the flautist's sudden shift into a Jerry Lewis impersonation in response to a chattering woman in the audience. "Lay-dee. Lay-dee," he drawled to the packed house, until the offending "lady" finally shut up. "That's my boy," laughs Figueroa, "he's a crazy son of a bitch."
Wilner is not the only Miami-based jazz player pleased to have Figueroa in the neighborhood. Jazz singer Raul Midon met and played with both Figueroa and Valentin early this past January during a jazz festival in Montevideo, Uruguay. Midon remembers being suddenly foisted onto the stage with the flautist and percussionist in the middle of a set of Gershwin classics, expected to perform "I Loves You, Porgy." Midon remembers the intimidating scene. "I'd never played with these guys," he recalls, "and then suddenly I'm two feet away from them."
When Valentin showed up for a Van Dyke gig at the end of January, he called upon Midon's formidable ability to imitate a trumpet with his voice and invited him onstage once again. Although Midon is not on the official roster for Valentin's JVC set, both musicians say a guest appearance is likely. "I'll definitely be there," assures Midon.
Valentin is keeping a number of surprises in reserve, including his repertoire. Although the woodwind player says he hasn't yet decided what he will perform for the show, audience members can expect to hear classics by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and George Gershwin. While Valentin, buttressed and coaxed by Figueroa's grooves, can be explosive, he will probably play straight-ahead jazz classics tinged with a Latin beat. "Dave could push things way out to the salsa side, but he doesn't try to play things over my head," observes Wilner appreciatively.
Perhaps most remarkable for the uninitiated will be Valentin's unorthodox vocalizing: He sings while he's playing his flute. Don't try this at home. Valentin has developed a technique in which he croons a harmony to the notes coming from his instrument. Alternately because time means everything to him, the notes he sings and the notes he plays are in counterpoint.