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Ada Rovatti: Big Sax, Big Heart, Big Shoes

Photo credit: Ada Rovatti

Jim Worsley By

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My goal in recording is to take my time and be sure that I have something interesting to say. I like to have something I've written around for a while, to soak it in, and kind of own it.
—Ada Rovatti
From a small town in Italy to bright lights around the world, saxophonist Ada Rovatti boldly stepped into the big shoes of the late and legendary saxophonist Michael Brecker several years ago. She didn't fill them. No one could. Instead she has snugged up inside them and found her own way of expressing Brecker's music. Married to Michael's brother, the great trumpeter Randy Brecker, the emphasis has been on the Brecker Brothers' music. That is only a part of her story as she is also a composer of some note. Rovatti recently released her sixth record as a leader. We had a conversation that ranged from much laughter to heartfelt sentiments—-from the present to the past—from her love of music to the joys of motherhood—from humble beginnings to a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music (despite an incorrect mouth)— and a whole lot more. Articulate and open, Rovatti was refreshing and an absolute joy to speak with.

All About Jazz: Hi Ada. Really great to have a chance to talk with you. How are you today?

Ada Rovatti: I'm doing great. Thank you for having me.

AAJ: We should probably start from the beginning, but since there are no rules I am excited to talk with you about your new record, Sacred Bond:Brecker Plays Rovatti(Piloo Records, 2019). I've listened to it more than once. I love it. Please tell us about it.

AR: Well, the idea started three or four years ago that me and Randy wanted to do a collaboration. As everyone knows, Randy is one of the busiest guys in the business. So, I just kept writing and we were finally able to go into the studio and record with Randy co-producing it. The opening track, which is also the title track, "Sacred Bond" is very special to me. I had for a while wanted to do something with my twelve-year old daughter, Stella. She has come along to many shows and can sing along to most of the songs from previous CD's and she could even sing all the solos. She is very musical and has a very pretty voice. I thought it was a good idea to have her, as this is a family record with me and Randy and Stella.

AAJ: Yes, its truly a family affair with you and Randy trading licks and Stella on board singing.

AR: Yes, Stella is very musical. She also plays the saxophone at school. She has played piano and the violin, and now the baritone sax. It's something to see this fifty-five pound little girl playing that big horn, and playing very well.

AAJ: So the saxophone is just about as big as she is (laughing).

AR: (laughing) Yes, she sings, I sing along, she plays the sax, it's wonderful. The title of "Sacred Bond" is because there is a very sweet bond between us. You can hear the warmness of motherhood in the way it is played. It's a very special mother and daughter experience.

AAJ: Yes, such a wonderful thing. In the larger picture, are these songs a collection written over a period of time or did you write them all specifically for this project and consequently with Randy's style in mind?

AR: Well, I write a lot but am not an artist that feels like I need to put out a CD every six months. To me there should be a special meaning and a reflection of where I am at the time. It's a testament to changes and they don't happen so fast. Every record I have done has a three, four or even five-year gap between them. I play with other artists during that time. My goal in recording is to take my time and be sure that I have something interesting to say.

AAJ: I think that's a great approach. Putting a record out just because there is some perceived notion that you should, doesn't really make sense. Then you are just throwing something together instead of crafting something with more substance.

AR: Yes, I like to feel comfortable in what I am doing. I like to have something I've written around for a while to soak it in and kind of own it.

AAJ: This is I believe your sixth record as a leader.

AR: It's something like that (laughing).

AAJ: It was clear from your first album, Under The Hat(Sunnyside Records, 2003) that you have a certain grace and conviction in your playing. I was wondering what it was like just starting out and immediately jumping into the studio with big talents like Randy and Mike Stern, among others.

AR: Well, Randy and I had been married for a couple of years by then, so there was a comfort level there. The producer was a big fan of Mike Stern, as am I, and asked if I would like to have Mike as a guest on the record? I was like, YEAH [said with an "of course I would" inflection].

AAJ: (laughing) Yeah, that was kind of a no brainer.

AR: For sure. We also had Don Alias on percussion. It was perfect. I have to say that Mike Stern is the sweetest guy ever. I remember getting together with him to go over the tunes and he was so very complimentary. He gave me a lot of compliments and support that was just adorable. The nicest person to be around and wow, what a great musician!

AAJ: That sounds about right. I know Mike pretty well and I would agree. I don't know that I have ever met a nicer person than Mike.

AR: Yes, and he is very cheery. He is always excited about what is going on. So cheery, upbeat, and just a great vibe.

AAJ:Leni Stern told me some time ago that she was a little nervous the first time she played with big— time artists, which in her case was Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. But that as soon as they started playing, she felt like her feet were ten feet off the ground, that playing with great musicians made it so much easier to play, relax, and just enjoy yourself. Did you find that to be true as well?

AR: Totally. When I sometime play with young students who are learning it can get rough. The music doesn't grow in the way it is supposed to. It Is challenging. But when you play with seasoned musicians you don't have to worry about anything. It makes your life as a musician much easier and allows you to grow your improvisational skills. You don't have to worry about the time. Everything is laid out perfectly. Even if there is a mistake, at that level the mistake will be turned into an opportunity to go in another direction.

AAJ: They can pretty much turn it into an "I meant to do that" moment.

AR: They really open the door to expand and improvise.

AAJ: I love it in live performances when that happens. You pick up on something and then it's like wow! They go into a five to eight minutes section of music that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

AR: Exactly. Its, ' don't know what that was, but it's cool! '

AAJ: Well, that's a big part of what jazz is.

AR: Yes, yes, that is part of that magic we all aspire to get into. That magic moment where anything is possible.

AAJ: You mentioned playing with other artists. A couple of records that come to mind are Randy's Grammy winning 34th and Lex(ESC Records, 2003) and also John McLaughlin's Industrial Zen(Verve Records, 2006). What was the experience like working with John McLaughlin?

AR: Well, he is such a fantastic player. I received an email from John saying that he liked my last record and was wondering if I would like to play on his next record. I thought it was a prank—that John McLaughlin wasn't really reaching out to me to play on his record. I had met him and his wife a few months before traveling with Randy on one of his tours, but I never expected that to happen. A few weeks later I received another email from John saying hello. Randy looks at it and says this isn't a prank, this is John McLaughlin. So, then I was sorry that I hadn't responded before. That's how it all started.

AAJ: That's funny. I can see how that could happen though. In fact, Alice Soyer told me a similar story when she first heard from Bob James. Did you enjoy the project, the experience?

AR: John sent me the music and it was the most difficult thing I had ever seen. I wondered if I was looking at it upside down or something. Very hard music. I wasn't familiar with the odd time signatures. But I got into it every bit as much as I could. It was great to play with such a fantastic artist. He made me feel super comfortable. Very calm in explaining what he wanted. A true gentleman.

AAJ: That's great that you had an opportunity to play with someone out of your regular orbit. To be able to stretch and learn new things.

AR: Yes, absolutely. Yes, it was a different color, I would say.

AAJ: We were talking about your daughter at the outset. Randy told me recently that you are the greatest wife and mother in the world. He said so quite sincerely.

AR: I pay him.

AAJ: (laughing out loud) I love it! That's hysterical. Music is of course a big part of your life, but maybe you could talk a little bit about family and just how important and special motherhood is to you.

AR: Well, it is so very special. You know, I wasn't that young when I had Stella. It really changed my life and daily routine and thinking about myself. I am so fortunate to have a husband that is so supportive of me as a mother and as a musician. It's hard to find someone who can be both. Randy is just such a great husband and a wonderful father. It has made me a better person and actually a better musician. You could wonder with being a mother when do you have time to practice. But motherhood has made me a much more organized person. I find myself much more productive than before. I believe that my playing and my writing has improved from the day Stella was born.

AAJ: That's very interesting. I was going to ask you if it made it difficult to find the time to practice and write or if it spawned creativity. It would seem very much the latter.

AR: Yes and I also became a little more forgiving to myself. I am still very critical, but I am not so negative towards myself with Stella in my life. It's funny because she will be critical of her own playing and I will say not to be so hard on yourself. But she will quickly point out how hard I am on myself and say—well, no I better not say that word now. (laughing)

AAJ: (laughing)

AR: Its really something to have a ten-year old, an eleven-year old that will teach you how to love yourself.

AAJ: Oh, that's such a wonderfully emotional sentiment. I genuinely appreciate hearing that. It's a whole different lifestyle being at home much of the time. I know that you have been around the world and have played jazz festivals like the North Sea Jazz Festival, Montreal, San Francisco, many more. Do you enjoy that kind of travel to see different parts of the world and to play for large audiences like that?

AR: I do, and I miss it a lot. It's so interesting to meet people in a different culture. Every time I travel, I try to take an adventure on a day off. Whether it's a museum or shopping or whatever just to get into that environment and culture. I like to say, the more you know, the more you embrace. What that means is that the more different cultures you are around the more you realize that we aren't very different at all. I want to share with Stella, so that she knows that it is a great way to open your mind and your heart.

AAJ: That is so well said. Thank you for sharing that. You know we started in the present with your new record, so maybe now we will go back to the beginning. What part of Italy were you born and raised in?

AR: I am from north Italy, one hour outside of Milano I grew up in a small town called Mortara, that is full of rice fields. You close your eyes and open them, and it looks like you are in the middle of China.

AAJ: So very rural, not in the city at all.

AR: Yes very rural. It's a town that is around twelve hundred years old.

AAJ: Wow! A lot of history there. Did you grow up in a musical family?

AR: My grandmother was a pianist. I first played piano when I was four years old. I played classical music until I was like sixteen or so. Then I started on the saxophone. Playing jazz was a whole new thing. The closest thing we had to jazz was Bing Crosby singing a Christmas tune. I wouldn't call that jazz. My brother played guitar and was into the blues. He was putting a band together. He wanted a horn section. He told me if I picked up the saxophone, I would be very popular with boys.

AAJ: Ah, that was the hook. That was all you needed to know (laughing).

AR: I was just starting high school, so yes it was (laughing).

AAJ: So the moral of the story is that if your love life is struggling pick up a saxophone.

AR: Exactly (laughing)

AAJ: Do you still play the piano at all?

AR: Yes, I compose on the piano. It has the full range of notes and I find that it is best for composing.

AAJ: Yeah, of course a lot of artists that aren't even pianists compose on the piano for the reason you just stated.

AR: Yes you can play the melody and the harmony. With a saxophone you can only play one note at a time. So, kind of hard to compose like that. With the piano you can have a bass line. Before pre-production you can hear what you have before you present it to other musicians. That's a real plus.

AAJ: Yeah, the piano just gives you the full package. You clearly took right to the saxophone in receiving a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Just how incredible and exciting was it to have that opportunity to come to the United States and study at such a prestigious music school?

AR: Berklee had the program that I really needed. So, I applied for a scholarship and yes it was very exciting to receive it. I was only eighteen years old. We didn't have an opportunity to play music at school. There was no music program in high school. A lot of people think that in Italy there is all this music. tradition but the reality is that it is not taught in the school system. I was lucky that my grandmother played, and later my brother played too. I was able to play in his band. Most of my friends never had an opportunity to even approach a musical instrument. The first time I heard a saxophone was when I went to my first lesson. You have to be very determined to learn to play in Italy, because the schools don't support you.

AAJ: That's interesting because as you say there is a perception of the arts being very important and highly supported. I have talked to people that have said that playing an instrument was almost mandatory or at least expected.

AR: Yes you go to Germany or Switzerland or France it's another story. But there is still no music in the schools in Italy. There are beautiful theaters and classical venues to go and listen to music in Italy. But here are beautiful theaters and classical venues to go and listen to music.

AAJ: They have wonderful places to play but they don't necessarily teach you how to play and to get there.

AR: That's it, yes. There are no youth orchestras or anything like that.

AAJ: That's enlightening to know that, as I have spoken to artists in places like Norway and Sweden and Denmark that talk about the vast opportunities to learn and play music in public schools all the way from grade school through high school. It's easy to assume it is like that all over Europe. Ah, but we should never assume. Now before you went to Berklee you took a year or so and went to Paris. How or why did that come about?

AR: I was a beginner and didn't have that much experience. It was difficult being in the small town to find other musicians that could play and that had the same drive and interest in jazz that I had. At Berklee it was twenty-four hours a day immersion into music with other talented and driven musicians. It was difficult for me because even some of the musicians that were younger than me had so much experience in playing with bands and orchestras. They were almost professional musicians already. Everybody has a different path. I had the classical piano training that maybe they didn't have. So, Paris was largely about getting practical experience playing gigs with talented musicians. I needed to catch up in that way.

AAJ: At Berklee I believe one of your many instructors was the great George Garzone.

AR: Yes he was. He told me that I needed to start from the beginning. That my mouth was wrong. I was crushed at the time. But you know what, he fixed me. Actually it was Joe Viola (laughing out loud) A senile moment (laughing).

AAJ: Well, don't just hate it when someone tells you your mouth is wrong? (laughing)

AR: (laughing) Oh yes. My lips, my teeth, my posture. Everything was wrong. But Joe was the coolest guy, and he fixed me.

AAJ: That's great that it worked out that way. I mentioned Garzone because I had a conversation with him, I don't know, earlier this year or the end of last year. One of the things he talked quite a bit about was his triadic chromatic approach in relationship to John Coltrane's music. Was that part of the curriculum when you were there?

AR: Let me tell you, I was a beginner. That was for much more advanced students. George had me transpose some of his very hard solos in all the keys. It was quite difficult because of all those complexity of intervals and harmonies were quite impressive. . It was a challenge and a great learning opportunity.

AAJ: Well, at some point you meant Randy, connected musically to start with and now have been married for how many years?

AR: Too many.

AAJ: (laughing hard) I love your sense of humor. I'm happy to be your set up guy.

AR: We love to have fun and joke like that. We got married in 2001. So, nineteen years now.

AAJ: Closing in on your twentieth anniversary. Good for you. To start with you had a long-distance relationship with you in Europe and Randy in New York. That was before emails and texts and such, so perhaps there were actual letters expressing feelings?

AR: We still have our letters that we sent each other. There was something romantic about love letters.

AAJ: Well, it's wonderful to hear you say that. It's something very special that technology has taken away from our culture.

AR: There is something about writing on paper with a calligraphy pen. You can get so much about a person by the way they write. The choice of words is more thought out and it is very revealing. You are right that it is a wonderful part of romance we have lost or are losing.

AAJ: It's so much more personal than an email and you put more of yourself into it.

AR: Yes, and the style of writing is individual and personal. Interestingly, Randy and Stella and I are all left-handed.

AAJ: That is interesting. What are the odds? You have become a major part of the Brecker family in many ways. You have stepped into Michael's big shoes at the Brecker Brothers reunions. What was that like the first time or first few times that you did that? There had to be a tremendous amount of pressure.

AR: Yes, there was a lot of pressure. When Randy got booked at the Blue Note there was a lot of discussion as to what to do. The idea was mentioned to call it a Brecker Brothers reunion and have me play sax. Randy was a little skeptical because it was already a few years that Mike had passed away, but it was still a very open wound. When he told me I was like 'Hell no, I don't want to do it. I don't want any part of it.' It took a lot of convincing to talk me into doing it. It was a very uncomfortable spot to be in. The music is great, and the musicians are great, and I absolutely adored Michael. But his playing was so influential and such a statement. He made the tunes what they were. No one can replicate Michael. I have to play it my way. But it is difficult to do that. Still now when I play "Some Skunk Funk" or "Straphangin'" I hear what Michael would do in my head. He is a very iconic musician. Still, you don't want to hear another musician in your head when you are trying to play! Michael and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins—no one will ever play like them again.

AAJ: Well certainly no one can fill his shoes, as you say. But it seems you have done a remarkable job of putting your own take on the tunes and bringing out what's inside of you.

AR: Thank you. That is the only thing I can do. I can only play as Ada Rovatti. I wish I had the skills that Mike had, but nobody does. I can only present myself to the audience.

AAJ: A lot of pressure at the beginning and I'm sure a certain amount every time you play a Michael Brecker tune. However, the reunions are all former Brecker Brothers players and have to be a lot of fun as well.

AR: Yes, everyone is super supportive of each other. They appreciate the fact that I try to be myself and do the best that I can to honor Michael's music.

AAJ: It's hard to imagine that Michael would have wanted it any other way. That is to say that he would want the music to live on and for his old bandmates to get together to have fun and keep the spirit of the music alive.

AR: Absolutely, and I have such a connection with Randy that I bond with the music and the band.

AAJ: Randy talked about how he and Michael never had to discuss what they were going to do. It was just natural and Instinctive. He went on to talk about how for some time now he has had that same sort of relationship with you.

AR: Yes, we don't need to be very specific on how we are going to phrase or carry a note. We often get compliments on how well we blend together. It just comes from playing a lot together for several years now.

AAJ: Well, I compliment you on a wonderful conversation today full of laughs, memories, and expressing much warmth with your personal feelings. Ada, I thank you very much for your time. It was true pleasure talking with you today.

AR: Thank you for your continued support of musicians, Jim. It's a tough world out there right now. We really appreciate that you help us keep the music alive and helping us to let everybody know about our work.

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