An interview with Joel Remmel: melodies translated into unvisited places

28. November 2014
Giulia Oro

I met Joel Remmel on the first snowing day in Tallinn. The atmosphere was really suggestive, talking in a warm café while it was quite cold and wintry outside. When talking with Joel, it seems like talking with a guy wiser than his age. Through his words and his quietude one can perceive the matter of music as something deep, something that really gets to a human being more than to be only performed.

How did you discover jazz music? 


Joel Remmel: It’s true that my father has influenced me a lot, especially in the jazz field. Actually, both of my parents are musicians. My mother plays violin in the national orchestra so my house was full of music and it was natural for all the children to attend music school and get the basic music education. But at some point I needed to decide if I wanted to make music more professionally or just make it besides other things. 

Talking about jazz, I think I was around 14 when I was first influenced by it. Since that time I’ve only played classical music and the music one’s supposed to play at a music school. And my father was (and still is) very wise in the sense that he didn’t put too much pressure on me. It was during our summer vacation near the lake in South Estonia, when I discovered one album (Monty Alexander Trio, a piano trio with double bass and guitar). Of course it was old jazz music, but there was something thrilling in it. After that I had one or two years left in music school and I started to improvise a little, trying to make my own music. 


When and how did you decide to play together with Aleksandra Kremenetski and Heikko Remmel?


Joel: I have been playing together with my brother since he started playing double bass. He actually started with violin in music school but it didn’t work out for him. He has been playing double bass for eight years now. Anyway, we used to play together at home and also often in church. So it has been a natural growth in music for us. 

Concerning Aleksandra, she was introduced to me by Peedu Kass, a bass player, when we took part in a competition in Pärnu. It was the first public performance for me in the jazz field. Before that I had been playing with musicians from Georg Ots music school. Peedu suggested me Aleksandra because she’s more open to this piano trio conception which was really good, although we didn’t form the Joel Remmel Trio until many years later. We had been playing together with Ara Yaralyan and other musicians for some compilations until we were offered a concert in Jazzkaar Festival in 2011. So I thought the best choice would be playing together with my brother Heikko and Aleksandra as a trio. It was also a good choice because we played our own tunes. In that way it was the birth of the band.


Since your first performance at Jazzkaar Festival three years have passed: what has changed? How are the relationships in the group?


Joel: I think a lot has changed. In the beginning I didn’t have particular plans, I just had some tunes and Aleksandra and Heikko had some tunes too, so we wanted to see how we could work it out. It was sort of an intuitive way to find out our own style. We have written a lot of tunes since then and we have actually a lot of material to perform and the possibility to choose. In the last year I have experienced that our way of playing has become more free, in the sense that we can evolve during the live concert just by feeling the freedom to change the same tunes we have already played. And of course by now we are all sure and more confident about each other. Whatever we do it could become interesting, we can let the music follow us or vice versa. And I think this is very important for a group. We know each other well outside the music, as persons, I mean. For now it’s just fascinating to play together during the concert, because we create a communication with audience and I feel I really need to communicate something. 


What were the most important experimentations between the first album “Lumekristall” and “More than fishermen”? What has influenced you more?


Joel: Actually both of them are, in a way, really honest music because we don’t over-arrange things. Of course we do. Compared to the traditional jazz, it is left really often, but I mean, we don’t tend to the perfection because if we’d do that we couldn’t release anything. 

When we recorded the first album in the summer of 2011, our purpose was that we had to show to people where we were at that time. We had to give our music our way as musicians, not try to seem like somebody else or be better than we actually are. So in this sense our music is honest.

As I said before, before recording the first album we hadn’t played as a trio so much, so in that sense it was sort of an experimentation just to find ourselves. But I think we managed it quite well. It was also a great opportunity for the Estonian radio. We could record it in their studio for free as a price for Jazz Talent Award after the concert at Jazzkaar Festival. Concerning the second album, we recorded it in Germany so it was a totally new experience. We had more time to think about it and play our songs. Of course we were also more ready in a way, as we had already recorded an album before.


The models and the research, of course, are important as the first step to create a piece. Most of your tracks remind Bill Evan’s piano melodies, to the rhythm of Herbie Hancock or to the melancholy of Mile Davis in some ways. But how important is the improvisation in your own way of playing and composing?


Joel: I think I use different techniques and different ways to compose. One way is just an improvised play, letting the flow lead you to some point. Then I usually record it and I listen if there’s anything, like any keepers to take out and find how to develop them. 

With Joel Remmel Trio, at least for me, the way of composing is a little bit classical because there’s not so much swing and also the forms are quite fixed in a way. 

However, we don’t have one way of composing the tunes. I have a little idea and I try to develop it. Then we try to play all together and of course there are some changes and we fit all the instruments better than on the first version.

I got a lot of knowledge on the last year in the Master Studies from Kristjan Randalu, the teacher in The Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. He taught me how to think through the forms, how to perceive all conceptions and consequences of the tunes and how to use different forms of variations in melody and harmony. 

One of the most important things is to make tunes that are both likable for musicians and non-musicians. Musicians tend to get bored if the tunes are too simple or too repetitive, while non-musicians tend to zone away if the tunes are too complicated or too technical. So I think that one of our searches is to find balance that we can use while communicating with the audience.


Which musicians influence you more in the contemporary scene?


Joel: Although Esbjörn Svensson died six years ago, his music is still really strong and has influenced my development a lot. Recently also Brad Mehldau. Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock are reference points too. It may seem like a mainstream choice, but I’ve never been afraid of mainstream. Of course I try to avoid it, but I used to listen those piano players mainly. Also, indie and pop music influence me and country and American music like Snarky Puppy. Everything is really fascinating but you need to decide what do you want to do.


In the contemporary scene the music seems less academic than in the past, more connected with the experimentation and the language of visual arts. Could you give your own idea of the music in a few words?


Joel: For me, beauty is really important in music. It’s really difficult to say what is beautiful and what is not, especially in the contemporary art scene, but I still believe in traditional values and I think music has to fill up and inspire people. Nothing else really has the ability to get to the deepest parts of a human being. 

I believe music can change, but you have to be really strong with the message. If you look around there are always bad news and I don’t feel I should mirror them. Bad feelings are already spoiling vibes. I feel I have to present something pure, something strong and beautiful, just to get out of those bad feelings and try to put the best into practice in the life. That’s one of the ideas. It’s really difficult to say if music represents this idea of beauty or not, but for me it does and I hope that other people get the same feeling.


Are you thinking about a new album?


Joel: Yes, we are planning to record next summer. Nothing is arranged yet, but in any case before the end of next year will be the time for the third album. I’m not sure if there will be additional guests, other instruments or vocalists for example. The main focus is still on the trio and I think after the concert at Jazzkaar we can look into the future more.


Have you ever performed abroad? 


Joel: Both of our albums are also sold in Japan, so we have a connection there, which is really good. We have played in Sweden, where a couple of concerts have already been scheduled for the next autumn, also in Finland. We went to play to Switzerland last spring. I know it’s not so much yet. We had some opportunities to play in Czech Republic and Germany, but they didn’t work out, so it’s still work in progress. For the next year, we are planning a Scandinavian tour in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.


What are your opinions about the obstacles that the musicians can find at the moment?


Joel: I think one of the issues is that people are not patient anymore. They want to get everything here and now, they are not willing to wait for it. That’s also a problem for musicians. People use to watch branding and market and jazz is not so mainstream compared to any kind of popular music. In this sense, jazz music has to work harder to reach people and to keep the audience. I think the keyword is consistency or, I mean, not giving up if you believe in something. Of course in Estonia, if the musicians want to make ends meet, they have to do many different things at the same time. They have to be able to keep their own things focused in their own project. They have to be willing to wait for months to perform again because the country is quite small and you probably have already heard something. So, if you don’t have a new CD out, you have to wait or just come out with a new material. All obstacles are not simple for the musicians, but I think that in a way, it is good. I mean, you can do something else besides music. The important thing is to keep your purpose and produce something new to keep people attached. 


Would you like to add something? Any clarifications, messages, feelings to say?


Joel: I feel really thankful for the opportunity to play music with the musicians whom I’m playing it, daily or not so often. I think I’ve been finding myself more and more, not only in music, but also in life in general. I think we don’t have to be too stressed about the things, we should do everything here and there and live without losing hope. I believe the most important things on Earth are relationships between human beings (first of all family and friends and then all the others) and if you don’t get that thing working, it can be really difficult, maybe you can’t be happy. That’s why I have decided not to put myself too much inside the music. No matter how cool your music or how big your success is. Without family, friends and relationships in general, music wouldn’t have too much meaning.


Joel Remmel Trio at Christmas Jazz: 28th of November, Kumu auditorium

Joel-Rasmus Remmel – piano

Heikko-Joseph Remmel – double bass

Aleksandra Kremenetski – drums