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Inspired by her late father, Ada Rovatti opens her mind and heart with her new recording

Ada Rovatti
c/o the artist
Ada Rovatti

The saxophonist Ada Rovatti has just released The Hidden World of Piloo, her 7th album as a leader. Inspired by her late father, the album features not only a crack band, including her husband, the renowned trumpeter Randy Brecker, but also vocalists such as Kurt Elling, Niki Haris, Fay Claassen and Alma Naidu, singing on compositions written by Rovatti. She talked with me about the album, her composing songs with lyrics, and being part of the Brecker Brothers Reunion band, as well as about her interesting journey from her upbringing in Italy to her dynamic presence on the international jazz scene today. And she shared her secret hidden talent.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: You were born and raised in Italy. What was your music education like there?

Ada Rovatti: I started to play piano when I was four years old. My grandmother was a piano player so I started playing in my family which was fortunate because unfortunately in Italy, we don't have any music education at school. In elementary school, we have recorder or choir and in middle school, we had history of music. In high school, we don't have any music program. Unless you are enrolled in some out of school program, you absolutely don't have any way to discover instruments, or even hear instruments live. I was really blessed that somebody in my family was musical and kind of showed me the path.

In high school, my brother played a little guitar and he had the idea of putting a band together, with a horn section. I got me into the idea of picking up a horn section instrument. I really liked the idea of trombones, but my mom told me that I would turn my cheeks into those like Louis Armstrong. That tells you the state of knowledge about the trombone. We settled on the saxophone and my brother told me I would be really popular with boys. So I said, “Well, I guess I can do that.”

And it's worked.

Yes, totally. I highly suggest if you're single, pick up an instrument.

We're joking about it, but you really do become part of a community and you're hanging with people with like interests.

Yes, totally. It becomes like an extended family.

How and when were you introduced to jazz as a music?

Later on, I started to listen to R&B and blues, and then naturally for me, led me to becoming curious and wanting to understand this language that was current. I couldn't understand where it was coming from so I went backwards to start with R&B. Then rock fusion. Then modern, more jazz-oriented. Then backward up to Dixieland, trying to nail it down where it was coming from, this language.

The album title refers to your father's pet name for you, Piloo. Talk about your father's influence on your life and your music.

Well, my dad was a brilliant human being, very kind and an explorer in the real meaning of the word—sort of like the Indiana Jones of Italy. He lived a long time in Africa, traveled all over the world. He was a geologist, but never worked as geologist, instead running the family business of Fiat cars.

Ours was one of the first car dealers opened 1908 by my grandfather. He had an extremely curious mind and a kind soul but with quite a temper. As kids, we are always exposed to all sorts of crazy people coming from all over, with different backgrounds and he would throw parties. For instance, there would be a count from somewhere, the guy that just fixed the toilet, the bearded lady from the circus. We always had the most colorful array of people around. He always told us to respect everybody and embrace the world. He always told us that, “We give you wings, just use it.” That's the idea of just exploring the world because it opens your mind, but especially it opens your heart.

It's no secret that your husband is the great trumpeter Randy Brecker. How and when did you meet?

We met in Switzerland. He was going to be a guest on a big band. I was working in Italy and I went there to just drop off the music and to explain what he was going to do with our big band. That’s how it happened, 28 years ago, something like that. That's a long time ago.

You each have your own careers, but at some point they dovetailed when Randy launched that reunion of the Brecker Brothers band. You ended up filling the Michael Brecker chair, which was quite a chair to fill. What was that like for you? Because truthfully, you have your own sound, you weren't a Michael clone.

We were already playing together, previously in his quintet and he was guest in some of my projects. It just so happened that he was asked to do a week at the Blue Note and when he put together a band, the organizer of the concert pointed out that they were all the members of the Brecker Brothers. The organizer mentions “Why you don't call it a Brecker Brothers Band reunion?”

I remember I was booked to do the gig with Randy. When he told me they were going to change the name, I was like, “I'm out. I don't want to have anything to do with it.” It took a while for him to convince me that he wouldn't do it with anyone else because he wanted to have somebody who had a special connection that had been playing with him. We have the same idea of phrasing. Finally, he convinced me to do it. It was an amazing experience, the level of musicianship, the tunes, everything was magical.

However, it was a very uncomfortable position for me because unfortunately, and understandably so, people cannot just take me for who I am. They always bring up the example of how Michael did it and you can't be Michael. First of all, there was only one Michael and his musicianship was unmatchable. But the reality was that any other great saxophone player that is out there, they're going to have their own sound. While you cannot expect me to sound like him, if I did, they would point it out that I'm a clone. If I don't sound like him, I don't sound enough like him. It didn’t matter what I did, they would find something wrong with it.

Throughout your career, one of your talents is as a composer. How has that evolved for you?

I always remember when I was 12, I started writing tunes. I still have some manuscripts and when I go to Italy, I check them out and think, “Oh, these are pretty good ideas for a 12-year-old kid.” I have always thought of myself first as a composer, more than a saxophonist, because I think I can showcase a better me when I sit down and have time to change it and I fix it. I also think I have a stronger personality as a composer than as an instrumentalist, but that's my own opinion. Somebody else will find differently.

What is your creative process for writing music? Does it come from playing or does it come from just sort of walking around and thinking, going, you know?

Well, it's a combination. Sometimes you hear something on the radio or these days, everything is so available. Just the touch of a keyboard might get you to start thinking, “Oh, this is good idea, I like the bass line.” The reality is that you need to spend a lot of regular time on the piano. I grew up playing piano so it’s good that I have knowledge of voicing and piano. Overall, you need to spend some time. Some days it happens that you get a tune out of it, but it doesn't often happen that that the full tune spills out within one day. To me, it's a work in progress.

I write notes, and then I say, “Oh, it needs a bridge.” Then I remember, a couple of weeks ago I wrote something that might match and it's like a giant puzzle. I'm the kind of composer that doesn’t think, “Oh, this is a D minor going to G, B flat.” I don't think about anything progression wise. I just go by the sound. Sometimes I close my eyes and I put my hands on the piano and what triggers me is not major, minor, whatever, but just the voicing and the sound of it. When I move my hands around until I find something. Later on, when I’ve finished the tune is when I transcribe it and say, “Okay, is it the minor that goes to that? Oh, what is a flat over?” I don't know what I'm doing. I just figure out once the tune is done, I transcribe and figure out harmonically what I did.

Ada Rovatti - The Hidden World Of Piloo - TRAILER - release date 1/19/2024

What was the inspiration for the new album? Was there any single inspiration?

The majority was written during COVID. I, like so many other artists, took advantage of that time to really sit down, and just take in a snapshot of that time and my life at that point, culminating with the passing of my dad in 2021. That was a big milestone. I didn’t want it to sound like a recording of mourning, instead it is actually a celebration of somebody who was brilliant. There are also topics about motherhood and about the world around us. COVID has been a reality check for a lot of people. For me, it was a good way to slow down and just look inside myself and look at outside with a different set of eyes.

Now I was really glad to hear that I wasn't the only one who thought, “Man, Ada is a really good singer” because I didn't have the liner notes to it, I just had the download. Of course I was hearing Niki Haris.

Yeah, I would be very rich if I had that talent.

Once I heard Kurt Elling, I was like, “Okay, well, these must be guests.” The vocals may not have been yours, but the lyrics were. Talk about that aspect of writing lyrics. It's not something most jazz people do, as you know.

I did it out of necessity because originally on this project, I wanted each tune with a different singer. I found out that it was pretty impossible to nail down singers as I discovered that they are not that available. Also, it was going to be pretty pricey.

Some singers wanted to write their own lyrics. Some told me they would, and they didn't. Then I contacted some lyricists who gave me some samples. But I realized, “That's not really how I feel. Lyrics about how I don't want to talk about it. He loves me, loves me not, his eyes, her eyes that, I'm over that.” I said, “You know what? I will try to write it. If it really stinks, I'm not going to use it. No big deal. Nobody knows.” Instead, it seems that they work. I'm not the best judge. I hope that people would tell me but we'll see. At least I put a little checkmark to indicate that I did it. We'll see how it goes.

Well, those are great. They're very different kinds of singers. Of course, Niki, who we both know from doing the jazz cruises, is really almost like a secret treasure in the jazz world, with her talents as a singer.

I think she's so underestimated and under the radar. I mean, her tone. Sometimes she reminds me a little of Aretha at some times, Tina Turner at other times. Just the way her phrasing is soulful. And she's a doll. When my daughter and I are on a cruise with her, we’re dying because she’s a comedian at the core. She's the funniest. I love her.

That duet with Kurt, “Done Deal,” as someone who's been married for 30 years, I certainly understood the final twist.

Yeah. The twist to it. This part is starting with you thinking you meet God, but it happened to be a woman. Then he just goes back to tell you important things about changing your life and then he ends with the same routine of everyday life. It’s just the same old, same old. Yeah, but it's such a great combination of course. And they do a lot of things on The Jazz Cruise and it felt like an extension of that.

I wasn't very familiar with Alma Naidu, but she's a pretty successful singer in Germany, right?

In Germany, yes. Super young girl who’s been doing a lot of TV shows and is an up and coming, very talented artist. Also, when I sent her charts, I told her that I was hearing also some kind of harmonies and next thing I know, she read like five harmonies. She harmonized everything, it was perfectly in tune and she was super professional and sweet. I was like, “Wow.”

Now, a lot of people have hidden or secret talents, right? I don't know if you know this, but I actually can juggle. It doesn't come up much.

Maybe you should do it when you do an interview.

The reason I bring it up is your secret talent is clothing design and creation such as the album cover. I'll show the album cover, which features your creation. Look at that. Wait, you didn't do the shoes too, did you?

No, no, but I Photoshopped them from another picture. I do all the Photoshop. That's why I also look 30 years younger [laughs]. But that’s another thing I learned during COVID. While COVID was horrible for a lot of people, for me it was an excuse to experiment and grow.

Are you performing the material from the album at live shows? Do you have gigs coming up where you'll perform these songs?

We’ll do some of the instrumental tunes and hopefully some work is going to come my way so I can finalize doing something with a singer. I just talked a couple of days ago with Nikki about her availability, I would love to work with her, and maybe Fay Claassen who is a Dutch singer who is incredibly talented and she sings on one of my tunes. Hopefully we're going to do something in Europe with her.

Hey you (Scintilla 0f Sonder) Feat. Fay Claassen by Ada Rovatti

Do you have anything else coming up? Is there another kind of project germinating that you've always wanted to do?

Well, my brain is always searching for some ideas. The fact that I own the record label and I had to do all the work from the design to everything related to a record label, I do it all by myself. I'm kind of in a recovery mode economically and mentally, because it never stops. But when I’m practicing, I get excited. Being on a jazz cruise, you hear so many musicians and so much talent that, at the beginning you get kind of depressed. Then, when you spend a few days at home, you start thinking about it and you get very excited.

I'm back in the totally shredding mode, trying to get better. I started writing new stuff and I'm thinking about something completely new. I received a lot of positive comments about the new recording and so many people mentioned that I should write a kind of a Broadway show. They said it was because my tunes are really catchy and I started to think, “Maybe, I should.” I have so many tunes that are really kind of catchy. Who knows, this is on top of my mind, since at least 10 people were telling me the same thing.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”