For Ada Rovatti, a saxophonist whose musical journey took her from her homeland of Italy, then inevitably to the United States, the road taken has not always been easy. A bright and sensitive artist, she can have misgivings about her work at times.
But that work, with other bands or the leading voice on her own recordings, brings to light an artist who has something interesting to say and does so with style and very strong chops. And its musical, not just muscle flexing.
As Rovatti looks at the career path she chose, she says it is "a mix between a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we do something that is magical. You can lift people's spirits. But sometimes it's a curse because you have kind of a addiction that you have to keep doing. You feel that it's not good enough or you're not satisfied. It's like chasing something that doesn't exist, in a way. Musicians are wired differently, so we are sensitive. We see life with a different set of eyes. We process things in a different way."
Still, Rovatti is a woman at ease in conversation and quick to see the humor in things. She admits she's always busy, even if it isn't music. If she's not writing or practicing, she is involved in activities with her daughter, Stella. With that, and occasional touring, she has only released five albums since 2003. She doesn't see the need to chronicle herself with annual projects as some musicians do. But ther fifth, released this year, is a special projecta family project. Brecker Plays Rovatti: Sacred Bond
features her husband, trumpeter extraordinaire Randy Brecker
, playing Rovatti's original compositions with a top-notch band. Naturally, it also highlights her own saxophone playing, which is melodic and adventurous, steeped in the jazz tradition.
The album, she says, is "kind of an ode between me and Stella, and of course Randy, as a family. It was an ideal project ... It was a labor of love. A lot of time. A lot of energy."
The album is outstanding throughout, with a broad range of moods, all compelling. It contains music with varying influences. "Sacred Bond," which relates to family, has mother and daughter doing a wordless vocal leading into the main of the song. "Britches Brew" has overtones of the Miles Davis
classic "Bitches Brew," even though it didn't immediately spring to mind as Rovatti was writing it. "Reverence" is a nod to Aretha Franklin, with whom Rovatti has a personal encounter.
"I had a big chance to play with her one time at the Kennedy Center. It was one of those experiences I will cherish forever," she says. "I remember my first or second gig on saxophone back in Italy. I was performing with a local band. The singer tried to sing an Aretha tune. Who knew that years later I would actually be in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center playing with the real one. It's one of those crazy things in life. Imagine a girl in Italy, a teenager, then years later you're on a stage with the real Queen of Soul," she says. Laughing, she adds, "It's one of those things where I could say, 'Ada, you didn't always mess up in life. Once in awhile you did it right.'"
"Britches Brew" was titled by Brecker, who saw the similarities with that Davis electronic music. "Randy brought it up and I said, 'You're right.' It's interesting how music goes inside your mind and you do something without knowing you are totally kind of ...not copying, but emulating. Trying to recreate that feeling," she says. "That's why we have back-to-back piano solos, by Jim Beard
and David Kikoski
. On the original (Bitches Brew
), they used to do stuff back-to-back."
"Mirror" is a composition that has furious solos by husband and wife. Their playing is outstanding throughout, as one would expect, as is the work of Kikoski, one of the top pianists on the scene.
"It's a different repertoire. I wrote all the tunes," Rovatti says. "A lot of people have been telling me there is some Brecker Brothers in it. I'm like, 'Well there is half of the Brecker Brothers there.' As a saxophonist and musician, I always loved the Brecker Brothers. I'm sure there is some of their compositions and playing that kind of stuck with me. I hope so, because they were great."
The band did one rehearsal then went into the studio, where the music was recorded over two days. The songs were recorded live, with only a few things added after the fact.
"Every time I do a recording, somehow I forget how much work is involved. Maybe that's why I do it every four or five years," she says with a chuckle. She writes out all the charts for the musicians. "I am manic about the charts and how they're supposed to sound... The charts are pretty much written out. The bass lines and everything. I write everything out. I hear it in a certain way under the melody. When musicians see the chart, they might say 'Do you really want me to play that?' It's like, 'Yes.'
"Then when it's time for the solo, I give total freedom. We can move also time-wise, stretch it out and go crazy. But the melody part is very arranged. It takes a lot of time. I write out the parts. Then we do rehearsal. Then if it doesn't sit right, I re-write maybe the bass part or the piano voicing. Stuff like that... A lot of times, I'm so worried about making sure everything is correct that I am sometimes not enjoying the moment. But it's a relief when it's all done."
A tour surrounding the music should happen next year with dates in Europe. In May, the band could be in Australia. "Next year's going to be exciting. It's going to be a family tour. Stella is going to be coming with us. Sitting in on a couple tunes. That will be really fun."
No surprise that Stella plays music. She started on violin, but is now playing baritone sax. "The baritone is bigger than her," she says gleefully. "She was the only one who was able to get a sound out of baritone. So here she is on baritone. It's kind of funny. I'm waiting for the Christmas recital. It's going to be fun."
Rovatti herself started out studying classical piano, which she did for 12 years. At the end of high school, she took up the saxophone. Jazz wasn't something that was heard around the house, so it was a big jump from piano to horn. "I thank my brother, because he plays guitar and was into blues and wanted to put a blues band together. He convinced me that if I played saxophone it would be really popular with guys," she says. "So I go, ' You've got a new saxophonist.'"
She heard rock music, then blues, before jazz. When she started to examine players, inspiration came from John Coltrane
, Sonny Rollins
, Michael Brecker
, Bob Mintzer
, Wardell Gray
, Lucky Thompson
and others. As a young woman, there was no real scene for her to develop at that time in Italy. Her experience happened at Berklee College of Music, where she had a scholarship, then in Paris
, then back to New York City
In New York, she knew few people. She found a job in Little Italy working as a waitress. Rovatti lived on the Upper West Side near a nightclub. "They had jazz every night. From 1 a.m. To 4 a.m. they had a jam session. So every night I would come home from the pizzeria, change my clothes, go downstairs and be out until 4 a.m. Then get up be back at 10 a.m. in the pizzeria. I did six months like that. It was great. I met so many people that I'm still friends with."
She gradually got to play with bands including Diva, the all-female big band. "I got to meet other women who were in the same position with the same interesting stories from all over the world. It was really refreshing, because back in Italy I didn't have any other female instrumentalists playing jazz. The only other females in jazz were singers."
She eventually formed her own nine-piece band called Elephunk, getting a regular Monday night gig. Well known musicians would come to sit in. She studied big band arranging at Berklee and put that training to good use writing the charts for the band. The group played the Rochester Jazz Festival
. As her name got around, she had the chance to sit in regularly with Les Paul. "He was the sweetest... He was always very supportive toward me. I have a great memory of him," she says. Mike Stern
, John McLaughlin
, Anne Ducros
, JoAnne Brackeen
, and Jimmy Heath
are some others with whom she played.
"The competition is so high in New York," she notes. "And places to perform, there are not so many. It's an eternal struggle. I'm still kind of struggling like everybody else in this kind of music and in this business. But you just keep doing it."
She met Brecker in 1996, before coming to the Big Apple. She had left Berklee and returned to Italy. She was playing in a big band where Brecker was the guest artist. She moved to Paris and the two stayed in touch. Eventually, Rovatti landed in New York. The couple was married in 2001. Rovatti is at ease mentioning that it was daunting, as a musician, to be associated with her husband. But as she continued to deeper into her sax, her ability rose to the occasion.
"It's hard to be Randy's wife. Randy has a name and also the brother of Mike. Especially when I joined the Brecker Brothers Reunion band. It was not easy. There is always someone to say, 'She's not close as good as Mike.' What comment is that? You have no idea how many times I have been totally smashed because I was associated with Mike," she says. But she held the trump card.
"Mike was the sweetest and most supportive of all the musicians I ever met. He was the greatest. Very humble. He was excited to ask me what I was doing. He was a gentle soul."
She never performed under the last name Brecker and says many people were unaware they were married, even on the Brecker Brothers Reunion tours. "But to do that repertoire was great. It has been an amazing learning experience. Those charts are ridiculous. It's an uncomfortable spot to play, but its the best."
When at home with her daughter, Rovatti does some teaching and writes arrangements. Sometimes she will co-write songs with others. "I try to stay as busy as I can. Now, being a mother, it puts limits on time. I'm still 100 percent into what I'm doing. It's part of me. My daughter knows I need to go downstairs to practice. She knows mama needs to spend time with her work."
A true artist, her activities can span from painting to photography, to cooking, to design, to sewing, to gardening. "Anything that is crafty and has to do with artistic things. I need to do it. It helps also my creativity if I do other creative stuff. I always have kids around my house. I always organize crafts for them. I always come up with a crazy idea."
In the end, she eschews things like meditation or yoga. Its music that calms her and brings things into focus.
"Sometimes I write more and sometimes I practice more. When I finish a period of my life, I feel it's a good time to say, 'This is what I've been doing the last two or three years.' I write a lot, but I don't want to keep putting out CDs if they don't have a meaning. That's why I'm not prolific. I don't put CDs out every six months or one year. Usually, every four or five years. They represent what I've been doing and how much I've grown. They are a story. Every three or five years I put kind of a checkmark to say, 'OK. At this stage I was here.' It reflects a time period.
"I needed to write to reduce my stress, anxiety or whatever is in life. It's like going to a shrink. Writing is very therapeutic. It brings out emotions. When I listen to an old tune of mine or an old recording... when I hear a specific tune it's a flashback on that specific time period of my life. That's what's magical about it. We all have a tune that when we hear it, we remember when we were 13 or 14. 'Oh my god. I remember when...' I hope the music will be somebody else's life soundtrack. That would be awesome."