Italy-born, Long Island, New York-based saxophonist/arranger Ada Rovatti delivers a captivating collection of original songs with wide-ranging thematic surprises around every corner. Her seventh album as a leader, The Hidden World of Piloo features six improvisationally rich instrumentals that include blues grooves, samba vibes, straight-up lyricism, melancholic balladry and a comedic finale. Two songs include strings; another features the dobro, a country instrument unlikely to be in a jazz song.
Four Rovatti compositions showcase top-tier vocalists, including jazz-poll champion Kurt Elling, the Netherlands jazz singer Fay Claassen, German pop/jazz star Alma Naidu and fired-up R&B singer Niki Haris (the daughter of jazz great Gene Harris) who once served as a Madonna backing vocalist. They each follow Rovatti’s “impossibly ranged melodies” and settle marvelously into her phrasing.
“This album is clearly not a project where band members solo twenty choruses of the blues,” says Rovatti, who is center stage on tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxophones and flute. “I want to be recognized as a singer/songwriter, saxophonist and arranger. This album shows a different side of me.” In essence, creating space for a round of solos isn’t her intent. She wants to focus on the interplay among her band members—including her husband Randy Brecker on trumpet and flugelhorn, organist Simon Oslender, bassist Claus Fischer, drummer Tim Dudek, percussionist Café Da Silva—and other guests.
Rovatti’s sophisticated songs are special. They dive deep into emotional memory. But some throw punches at the causes of the country’s social unrest and injustice.
Case in point: the funk-spiced, dobro-driven “Life Must Go On,” with a harmony arrangement by Naidu sung with a sense of doom in the midst of being “in pure hate and in greed’s name.” Rovatti says, “We’re messing around with too much. There is a higher power that is seeing all these mental glitches of people who want everything, who want power, and it never ends.” Then there’s also “The Naked King,” with a sweet, gentle groove and juicy bass solo that references to the era of the former president.
But of course, there’s the humor at the end.
The Hidden World of Piloo opens with the spirited, percussive, harmonic beauty “Make Up Girl,” dedicated to her teenage daughter who was experimenting with wearing makeup. “I had lyrics, but decided to turn it into an instrumental,” Rovatti says. “There’s a counterpoint for two instruments, which made it perfect for Randy and me to play off each other.”
On her favorite track of the album sung with fire by Claassen, Rovatti embellishes “Hey You (Scintilla of Sonder)” with strings and horns. Rovatti sparks with the intense notion of sonder that even random people passing on the street have their own layers of hidden struggles and complications. She says that’s a fascination and mystery for her. “It’s a deep subject when you realize that,” she says.
Rovatti references the grunge pop life in the ‘90s for the laid-back “Painchiller” featuring Brecker’s charged trumpeting and an injection of pain relief from her guitar friend Tom Guarna. She then turns a corner into jazz party time with the swing and New Orleans blues tune “Grooveland” that she says often ends the set with her band and her outings with Brecker.
“Italians share the Latin groove,” says Rovatti when asked why she changed gears again for the delicious “Simba Samba.” “Naturally I’m attracted to the mood, the groove of Brazilian music. In all my recordings there’s always a Latin feel.”
Rovatti dedicates The Hidden World of Piloo to her father who passed away in 2021 shortly before the recording was completed. In the liner notes, she writes, “A special thanks to my Dad who inspired most of this project and directed from above some of those life lucky oddities.” She also notes that his nickname for her when she was a child was Piloo which is not only in the album name but also is the name of her record label.
Haris sings Rovatti’s moving ballad with strings “Take It Home” in his honor. “I told her the story of the tune, and Niki came back with the perfect take,” she says. “She’s a pro. I wanted someone with a gospel background and a deep voice. I love her phrasing, and her texture reminds me in places of Tina Turner and in other places Aretha.”
Rovatti also mourns her father’s death with the lightly rhythmic “Red August,” the last tune she wrote before he died. It’s melancholic and sad. “It was a painful time,” she says. “I was just on the edge of hanging in there. Red is the color of love and passion.”
The entertaining last song of the album is arguably one of its best. “Done Deal” is a bluesy fantasy of a conversation between Elling and Haris. It’s a hilarious interaction between a husband and wife that includes a trip to heaven. “My original idea was to deal with the struggles of a couple,” Rovatti says. “But I couldn’t talk about cheating and things. I haven’t dated since my twenties, so I don’t remember suffering for love. I’m a happy camper with Randy. So, instead, I thought of comedy with Kurt and Niki improvising the lines.”
The Hidden World of Piloo features Rovatti exercising her creative expertise to its fullest. She wrote all the lyrics, composed and arranged the music, created the packaging that includes a photo shoot with her own light setup and makeup and hair style. “I like to control all the aspects of the work,” she says. “I’m very picky. My mother taught me to take care of myself and not let anyone interfere. It was during the pandemic, so I took up sewing and even designed all the clothes I’m wearing for the cover and album notes.”
Rovatti grew up in Italy playing classical piano before making the switch to saxophone which led her to the Berklee College of Music and later New York where she became active in the jazz community. She worked with many artists, including her future husband Randy Brecker who she became romantically involved with. They married in 2001 and have one child together. Rovatti began recording as a leader with two albums in 2003: Ada Rovatti & The Elephunk Band’s For Rent and her quartet’s Under the Hat. Her discography continued with Airbop. Green Factor, Disguise and in 2019 her Brecker Plays Rovatti—Sacred Bond, with the two playing her compositions. Today Rovatti tours with her own band as well as serves as the tenor saxophonist in Brecker’s band.