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Interview: Ada Rovatti


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Saxophonist Ada Rovatti and trumpeter Randy Brecker have been wife and husband since 2001. The pair met in 1996 when Randy traveled to Italy to perform with a local jazz band there. Ada was responsible for bringing him the music and talking him through how the concert would roll. As she told me below, it was love at first sight.

Now, Ada has a new album out, her seventh: The Hidden World of Piloo. Ada wrote the words and music to the album's 10 songs and chose the vocalists, who include Niki Haris, Fay Claassen, Alma Naidu and Kurt Elling. Featured musicians include Randy on trumpet and flugelhorn, organist Simon Oslender, bassist Claus Fischer, drummer Tim Dudek and percussionist Café Da Silva. 

The music is alive and leans toward R&B and soft jazz, which is a good spot for Ada, since there are many more opportunities in that space for jazz artists and arrangers. What's special about the album is the range of rhythms and moods, the coolness of the keyboards and horns that come and go with elegance and personality. Songs can have a Steely Dan feel on one track (Painchiller) and a Jazz Crusaders feel on another (Red August).

The vocals all work and are smartly diverse in terms of approach. Most noteworthy are Ada's dramatic arrangements throughout, and her playing on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones is superb.

Here's the album's opening track, which is loaded with bump and flavor. Ada's soprano sax is backed by a terrific Fender Rhodes throughout, and Randy jumps in with a sizzling muted trumpet solo...

Here's my interview with Ada...

JazzWax: Ada, where did you grow up?

Ada Rovatti: I grew up in Mortara, Italy, a small town about an hour southwest of Milan. I have an older brother, Edoardo, who also lives in the U.S. My family was musical. My dad, Mario, played some piano, and my mom, Olimpia, and brother both played a little guitar. My grandmother, Ada, who played classical piano, gave me formal lessons starting when I was around 5. I am the only one who pursued music as a career. As a child, I loved watching TV, but I usually wound up listening carefully to shows’ themes and incidental music. After, I’d figure out the melodies and harmonies on the piano, which improved my ear training and helped me later on.

JW: How would you describe yourself growing up?

AR I was a tom-boy. Playtime was spent with my brother and two male cousins. Up until my teenager years, I was considered one of the boys. I was rebellious but in subtle ways. I didn’t quite fit the mold of a typical Italian girl, but my family wasn’t typical either. My dad was a geologist, a professional hunter and a guide in Africa. He was a world traveler and ran one of the oldest car dealerships in Italy that dated back to 1919. My mom was a semiprofessional softball player, which was definitely quite unusual at the time. I presume the sport was picked up from Americans soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II. My parents met when they were already in their 30s, which was unusual for a woman then. As you can see, I had many untraditional influences and role models growing up.

JW: When did you start listening to music on records and the radio?

AR I grew up listening to classical and opera. In the summer, we’d spend our August vacation in Tuscany, in Torre Del Lago Puccini, a village on the coast north of Pisa where Puccini lived. Every night we’d attend an outdoor opera concert, which was pure magic. Then in my teenage years in the 1980s, I began listening to a lot of British pop, which was on the radio then. My brother exposed me to R&B and the blues, which you could hear on the radio. Instead, you had to hunt for copies of R&B and blue LPs you’d heard about or swap with friends who owned them. I was around 15 when I became hooked on virtually any group with a horn section.

JW: Local record stores probably didn’t have much, correct?

AR They didn’t. Friends and I would travel by train to Milan to visit a little store that carried jazz, blues and other niche music, as it used to be called. I remember listening to Blues Brothers albums. That’s when I caught the horn-section bug. My brother put together a band, and the saxophone always reminded me of singing, an extension of the vocal cords. It really sounded human to me.

JW: In high school, were you passionate about music from the start?

AR I always felt music would be a big part of my life and career, and I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, including playing organ in church for school events. My parents were supportive and encouraged me to be proactive and experience life. They said they gave us wings and we should use them.

JW: Where did you go to music school?

AR I went to a local music school, where I began by studying classical piano. Then, at age 16, I chose to play the saxophone thanks to my brother, who steered me toward a blues and R&B style. I enjoyed listening to the lyrical sound of the saxophone, which reminded me of a voice.

JW: How did you wind up with a saxophone?

AR My dad drove me three hours to a well-known music store that rented instruments. We came home with a beaten-up alto sax. Unfortunately, in Italy, music isn’t part of the public school curriculum, as it is in most U.S. public schools. In Italy, schools allowed for the recorder and maybe some singing as well as music history classes, but no instrument hand-outs or music lessons in high school, unless you attended a conservatory.

JW: Why?

AR I think music has always been viewed by Italian schools as a distraction from serious studies. So it’s hard to develop a connection to an instrument if you haven’t had an opportunity to see or listen to one. I was lucky. My family was willing to let us try things that we were passionate about. I was also lucky that in my town, we had a music teacher who had studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. I won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music at Umbria Jazz, where I attended their summer program in 1992. Then I spent time on the school’s Boston campus off and on between 1993 and 1996 studying jazz.

JW: Did you finish?

AR No. I was already working as a jazz musician in Italy, so my commitment during those three years was somewhat sporadic. I finally decided that the tuition was unaffordable, even with the scholarship I had received. Keep in mind, Italian colleges are free, so my parents didn’t bother to save money for advanced education.

JW: How did you meet Randy Brecker in 1996?

AR I had just returned to Italy after leaving Berklee. I was playing locally with some rock, soul and jazz bands and was teaching. Randy came over as a guest soloist in the big band in my hometown led by my teacher. I met Randy several days before the concert in Lugano, Switzerland, where he was playing. Lugano was just an hour and a half from Mortara. I was the band’s spokesperson and gave him the music we’d perform and other information about our concert.

JW: Did you already know who he was?

AR Of course, and I admired him very much. But I didn’t quite plan to fall in love with him. But if love at first sight exists, I was one of its victims. When we met, he was reserved but very charming and sweet, and I felt like I’d known him for a long time. He put me at ease. After the performance, we kept in touch by writing letters, which was so romantic. We also talked on the phone. But clearly the 27-year age difference made him cautious about a relationship. For me, I had the worry-free excitement and fearlessness of someone in her early 20s. Soon after we met and performed in Italy, I moved to Paris, the best place for music then. There, I had a chance to travel around Europe, and I even spent a month performing in Africa.

JW: When did you first come to New York?

AR In 1997, I decided to spend six months in New York to take lessons with musicians I admired. But at the time, my relationship with Randy was uncertain, so I wasn’t sure I was going to stay. When I was offered a work visa with a female jazz band, I accepted. For the next three years, it became a little easier to support myself with gigs supplemented by waitressing. Little by little, things fell into place with Randy, and he proposed. We tied the knot in 2001.

JW: You and Randy started recording together in 2002.

AR Yes, my first recording with him was in 2002 on 34th N Lex. I played a solo on Randy’s The Castle Rocks. I was so flattered. From an early age, I loved composing. I still have little scraps of paper with original music that I wrote out starting at age 10. Randy encouraged me to compose. After Randy’s brother, Michael, passed away in 2007, it took a few years for him to put together a band. In advance of an engagement at New York’s Blue Note, management realized that the group he assembled comprised of former members of the Brecker Brothers Band. That is, except for me. Ahead of our appearance at the Blue Note, the club wanted to promote the group in advertising as the Brecker Brothers Reunion Band.

JW: Were you OK with that?

AR In all honesty, I wasn’t thrilled. It was OK for me to play with Randy, but when they decided to switch the name and program, I wanted to pull out. As the saxophonist, I didn’t feel comfortable in Michael’s role. It took a lot of convincing by Randy and the band for me to accept it. In a certain way, however, my gut instinct was right. The critics slammed me and still do, but Randy was adamant about me being part of it. We had a strong bond, and he reminded me that I had a unique voice and didn’t sound like anyone else. The last thing he wanted, he said, was a clone of his brother, which came as a relief to me.

JW: Tell me about your new album, “The Hidden World of Piloo?” What’s the meaning of the title?

AR The project started during the pandemic, when I had this idea to use a different singer on each song. It was a great idea, but I soon realized the concept would be a nightmare to accomplish. I had to find the right voices and plan it out. I had never worked on my own project with singers, and the dynamics were different. Also, my compositions aren’t easy to sing, but I’m truly happy for the vocalists who stuck with me. “Piloo” was a nickname my father gave me when I was a kid.

JW: What was the origin of the name?

AR Piloo was a character from a book I loved about a naughty little cat. My father called me Piloo until the day he passed away in 2021. In fact, the album was finished just days before he died, so I felt a sense of closure with the recording. The project is a statement about the pandemic and that life must go on. I entitled the album The Hidden World Of Piloo because I showcase a lesser-known side of me as a multi-instrumentalist, arranger and photographer. I even designed and sewed the suit I’m wearing on the front cover. I am a very curious person and like to figure out how things work. I felt very vulnerable about the song lyrics because I was addressing very personal matters in English, a language that isn’t my native tongue.

JW: Do you find that the emotional power of jazz is becoming lost here compared with Europe, where audiences tend to be more sensitive and passionate about the past and preserving it?

AR I find that European audiences, especially in Eastern Europe, still feel the freedom of jazz expression as liberation music. Here, in the U.S., jazz is overlooked or put in a box that doesn’t receive much respect. I’m also bothered by how an artist’s appearance and how much financial success they’ve had are put on a pedestal here, causing young generations to be raised with the wrong values. Education, respect and kindness seem to be lost and are now no longer in vogue. That worries me.

JW: How often do you return to Italy to see family?

AR My mother and aunts and cousins are still there, so I try to visit as often as possible—three or four times a year, sometimes more. Our daughter, Stella, often comes with me. I like that she is growing up with an Italian background, and she loves spending time with her Nonna. Of course, she loves the laid-back feeling there, the small breaks, the food and other daily rituals that bring you into another time and world. I miss Italy a lot, not just because of my family but also for a sense of grounding. Each time I go to Europe—or as I like to call it, the Old Country—I feel more at peace. But since moving here from Italy, I’m more of hybrid. No matter where I am, I feel restless and don’t feel I belong anywhere. Maybe that’s good for my music and inspiration.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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