With the new year Washington DC welcomes what has become an annual event - the Flute Fête at Howard University, brainchild of Howard Professor of Flute Dr. Saïs Kamalidiin. Under Saïs' meticulous supervision over the last four years, Howard has welcomed flutists Yusef Lateef, Sherry Winston, Frank Wess and, last year, David "Fathead" Newman (see my review at jazzreview.com) to perform with Howard faculty and students. This year saw a change of pace, featuring a Latin artist for the first time--not just any Latin artist, but Grammy Award winning flutist Dave Valentin. It was a bold choice but the result was an unqualified success.
The program opened with two selections arranged by Dr. Kamalidiin for himself and his students, the Flutes of Howard University. They opened with Unconditional by Kirk Franklin, followed by a medley, Europa (Earth's Cry, Heaven's Smile), by Carlos Santana, and T. Coster, featuring the guitar of Howard Prof. Gerard Kunkel, and Robert Kraft's Bella Maria De Mi Alma, a showcase for pianist Dr. Thomas Korth, chairman of Howard's music department.
At this point the energy level went up a notch with the arrival on stage of Dave Valentin for two numbers with the flute ensemble, and two alone with the rhythm section. It was quickly evident how Valentin has won a Grammy, along with many other accolades for his playing. He has mastered both his instrument and his genre. There are many other artists of whom the same can be said, so what is it that sets Valentin apart? As Peter Schikle is fond of saying "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quois. Well, whatever it is, Valentin's got it, and he projects it. He roared through fine arrangements of Tito Puente's Oye Como Va and Wayne Shorter's Footprints, with a cadenza between them filled with vocalizations and other special effects, along with a healthy dose of humor. He draws a huge sound from the flute and knows exactly how to project it, how to place his phrases for maximum effect against the waves of percussion, and how to build a solo to an exciting climax.
Valentin's next selection introduced another dimension--a straight-ahead rendition of John Coltrane's Equinox with the Latin percussionists laying out. He followed this with Miles Davis' Milestones for which he was joined by local flutist Arch Thompson for spirited exchange of solos. On all of these selections, Korth and Kunkel contributed thoughtful and spirited solos. Indeed the rhythm section was excellent throughout, as appropriate for the Latin jazz genre this year as they were for the more straight-ahead playing of "Fathead" Newman last year.
For the final number, Sonny Rollins' St. Thomas, Dr. Kamalidiin brought back Arch Thompson along with two other guest flutists, Howard professor Ronald Ziefler and this writer. It is a little unusual for a writer to review a performance in which he actually plays a part, so nothing will be said about my three choruses! Suffice to say that the piece provided a grand finale with Valentin attempting to initiate a conga line around the music department!
Valentin is fond of quoting his mentor, the Latin music great Tito Puente, who told him, "If you are tired, stay home; if you can't walk, sit down; if you can't drive, don't; but if you are going to play, PLAY!" Dave has been putting these words into practice for forty years. In the course of the set, between numbers, he paused for a moment, pulled his Grammy out of his bag and told the students "If I can do it, you can do it!" Later that evening he invited me to his hotel and spent an hour giving me a flute lesson. Having reached the top of his profession Dave Valentin is heavily into giving back. He is a class act! As for Dr. Kamalidiin, he is already thinking about Flute Fête 2006!