The old proverb goes that it’s not the size that matters, but how you use it. It works for music as it does for sex. You can do just as much with a kazoo as you can with a symphony if you know what you’re doing. That’s not to say that big is necessarily bad. It’s just that if you go big, you’d better have a reason for it.
Saturday night at Harpa, a few different thoughts on the proverb were on display. First up was the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band—capital B’s required—who would have you believe that size is everything. Seventeen members strong, Samúelsson and co. filled the Silfurberg stage end to end, and from their punishing aural assault to their brightly colored dashikis, there was no room for subtlety. Countless trumpets, saxophones, trombones, guitars, drums, and lord knows what else rained down a litany of jazz, funk, and Afrobeat over a 40-minute set. It all started sounding the same a few minutes in, but newness wasn’t the point. The point was that there was a lot of it, and it was really, really loud. Really.
Not to be outnumbered, singer-songwriter Benni Hemm Hemm was flanked by no fewer than a dozen musicians. The key difference between Benni and Samúelsson was that Benni understood restraint. He was out to assault you with tenderness, not volume. While Benni could have gotten on just as well with only his acoustic guitar and gorgeous voice, his band served to add layers and lushness. The arrangements were smart. The band knew when to rock out, when to add simple accents, and even when to drop out completely and let Benni shine a cappella.
Norwegian group Philco Fictionbrought things back to a normal scale. The trio (yes, there were a paltry THREE of them) proved that even with smaller numbers they could still make plenty of noise, thanks to a keyboard/synth player who had an entire orchestra at his command and a singer who could belt. The set was long and dark, with moody synthesizers, trip-hop beats, and gloomy lyrics like, “Your heart is colder than the winter of ’81,” which it’s safe to assume was awfully cold.
So. You had a jazz-funk band twice the size of Iceland that could only play with the volume cranked to the max, a big-hearted troubadour who made room on stage for every last one of his friends, and a trio who took gloomy electronic pop to massive heights. At the end of our discussion of size, I suppose it’s just a matter of preference. Different strokes, right? (Har-har.)