With the Aleksander Paal Quartet being less than a week away from performing at Jazzkaar, the fresh and talented ensemble’s leader reveals his personal aspirations, values and struggles as a jazz musician in Estonia.
Aleksander Paal is a talented young Estonian saxophonist whose musical talents have been credited and awarded since his high school years. The most recent achievement is winning first prize in the Northern European Jazz Talent Competition in 2012 in Groningen, the Netherlands. As an avid composer and leader of his own ensemble, Aleksander Paal strives to achieve his own unique style. In addition to playing alongside great local musicians, including the members of his ensemble (acclaimed pianist Holger Marjamaa, renowned bassist Heikko Remmel and talented drummer Karl-Juhan Laanesaar) his skill has led him to perform in Estonia, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden. The saxophonist, in an introspective interview, expresses his many thoughts, opinions and goals regarding music with a bold and stirring honesty.
Musical Education & Roots
Regarding his education, like many Estonian children he was entered into a music school by his parents at the age of six. “My family put me into music school because of this general thought that all children should learn music. Actually, I began by learning to play the piano, not the saxophone, and I hated it. I actually skipped a lot of classes and it was too classical; very Soviet.” Considering this dislike for the piano, Aleksander Paal then discovered the saxophone at the age of twelve. When asked to compare the two instruments he responded, “With the saxophone you need to be convincing with your notes as you can only play one note at a time and the quality of your music relies on how convincingly you play.”
The saxophonist continued to pursue a career in music, much to the dismay of his parents. “They were not pleased when I dedicated myself to this path. I graduated from Gymnasium with good grades and was able to study anything I wanted. I actually applied and was accepted in for an Economics degree in Tartu, but turned it down to continue with music.” Economics may seem like a stretch from the musical arts, however, Aleksander insists that music and math are strongly linked, “Math was my favorite subject in school and when I compose or perceive music I always see it in numbers, permutations, sequences, and patterns.” Continuing his career in music led to the formation of his ensemble, which will be performing at Jazzkaar 2015 this week. When asked about what drew them together, he claimed, “We all went to school together here at the Tallinn Music School and we had the same ideas and goals and it was simply logical that we would play together.”
Importance of a Competitive Environment
When asked about his biggest challenge as a musician, environment played a huge role in the musician’s response, “Maintaining motivation in a small environment such as Estonia is a challenge. It is very easy to become comfortable and from there you lose your desire to improve.” Considering this, branching out of the country is integral to a musician’s ability to evolve, though Estonia’s jazz scene according to Aleksander Paal is improving. “I do think that the local music scene is growing here in Estonia. We just need more musicians in order to have healthy competition. Because there are so few musicians it is hard to find musicians with the same goals as everyone is content with their own specific ambitions. In order to thrive on healthy competition you need to find and play alongside musicians with similar aspirations.” The ‘problem’ of a lack of competition seems to be resolving itself, as Estonia’s jazz scene is not only growing but the local fan base is expanding and becoming more and more enthusiastic, “I actually find that Estonian audiences are very responsive, they give good applauses. Estonia has a very good group of jazz fans, Finnish artists who come to play here notice this especially.”
No place is perfect, though according to the composer, he does have a place in mind that comes close to meeting his expectations. “While on Erasmus in Germany, I met a lot of fellow musicians who ended up moving to New York. It is ideal because it is a place where there is a lot going on, many different musicians and a lot of competition.” While Aleksander Paal does find a competitive and lively jazz environment an ideal place to grow as a musician, he has also made it very clear that he values such competition in terms of how they help develop one’s musical skill, not in terms of opportunity for fame, “A lot of musicians focus too much on hype and then their playing is, sorry to say this, mediocre. Music should come first, it is important to market yourself but your skills are most important.”
Dreams & Goals
As a talented instrumentalist who is precise and clear about what he wants to achieve through his musical career, he expresses his end goal in the following definition of success, “Success is being able to generate your own unique and distinctive sound; fame and fortune are secondary. My next goal is to make my own recording album with my own compositions, although I don’t see this happening in the near future. I have kept a low key here in Estonia because I feel that my skills can be improved and I would like to travel more and gain experience and develop myself before making myself more known.” When asked about fellow Estonian musicians who have achieved this level of skill to the point that their sound is utterly unique, saxophonist Raul Sööt and pianist Kristjan Randalu were some of the names who popped up. Despite feeling strongly that his craft needs further developing before hitting the scene, his limited number of performances have already caught the attention of Jazzkaar founder and lover of jazz, Anne Erm. As a prominent figure in the Estonian jazz music scene with an expert opinion on the genre, she has also booked Raul Sööt’s band Deeper Sound for this year’s edition of the festival to play in the program with Aleksander Paal’s Quartet.
Critique aside, Paal claims he is proud of one personal development in particular, when asked about what he would consider to be his greatest accomplishment, he answered swiftly, “Writing my own compositions: I can put down a composition and say yes that is me, and I find this important for true personal expression.” In fact, his ability to compose music contributed heavily, in his opinion, to his winning of the 2012 North Sea Jazz Competition, “I knew that the Netherlands was a place where more classical jazz was appreciated and I used this to my advantage in a way. I was also one of the only entrants to bring in one of my own compositions, one that was more classical jazz, and the few others who brought their own compositions were, if I am going to be honest, not very good.”
Balancing Critique, Practice and Patience
Aleksander Paal disagreed with the word ‘perfectionist’ when I used it to describe him, and responded with the following, “I like to call it disciplined, but there is a downside to being self-critical especially when composing. I learned that it is not possible to compose and give critique at the same time and have been forced to separate the two processes; compose first and critique later.” Creativity and hard work go hand in hand, and though it can be challenging the artist insists that it is discipline that makes progress possible. “In the beginning it was very difficult to take the time to compose because it is a creative process and not something you can do on demand, but eventually I forced myself and it became easier.”
Considering the fact that his quartet will be not only performing this Saturday at Jazzkaar 2015, but are also touring, starting the day after this interview, finding time to practice proves to be another disciplinary challenge of the trade. “It is hard to find time to practice as two of the quartet members are in Helsinki studying. We met yesterday and will rehearse again today as we will be doing a tour throughout music schools in Estonia starting tomorrow and then a concert for Jazzkaar on Saturday. I am not worried, we will be warmed up by then!” Despite his own continuous drive to improve and better himself, Aleksander Paal’s profound respect and admiration for the members of his ensemble shine through his words. In addition to insisting that the band will be ready in time for their festival show, he states “The players are so good that I do not need to worry about them when we play together, I can just focus on myself and my style.” The fresh ensemble, led by the ambitious saxophonist, will hit the stage this weekend in one of their very first big performances as a quartet.
Aleksander Paal Quartet
April 18th 2015, Red House
Aleksander Paal – saxophones
Holger Marjamaa – piano
Heikko Remmel – double bass
Karl-Juhan Laanesaar – drums