The Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band – Iceland’s Funk Phenomenon
The Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band was originally formed in 2000 by Samúel for a set of live funk/afro/jazz performances in Reykjavík. The band released “Legoland”, a live recording from their debut concert, in 2000 and in 2007 reformed for a record called “Fnykur”, an old Icelandic word for something stinky, smelly or funky.
Samúel is also one of the leading members of smaller Icelandic funk unit Jagúar. The group has released five albums and toured trough Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, UK and USA including gigs at Londons Jazz Cafe and The Summerstages festival in New York. In 2004 Jagúar opened up for James Brown in Reykjavík.
Apart from working with Jagúar, Samúel has worked as an arranger and session man for various Icelandic artists such as Sigur Rós, Mugison, Reykjavík Big Band, Trabant, Mezzoforte, Tómas R. Einarsson and many more.
As he prepares to release a brand new Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band record, IMX catch up the funk phenomenon for a chat…
Sammi, when did you become a funk fiend?
I’ve always been a big funk fan, even before I knew anything about funk. I remember really liking Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson as a kid. Then when I grew up I heard some really funky stuff and there was no turning back. Kool and the Gang´s early stuff was a big mind opener.
Was funk your first (musical) love?
Actually I was really into film and TV music as a kid. I loved John Williams and Henry Mancini and later I fell in love with Ennio Morricone’s music. I used to sing along to all these TV themes.
When, where and why did you decide to form a Big Band?
I decided to do it when I was graduating from my music school. It was an old dream. I’ve been a big band fanatic since I first played in a school big band at the age of 14. But I wanted to give it a twist of my own. My band is not a traditional big band. We play funk with a mix of afro/jazz.
What was the initial reception to your funk sound in Iceland?
I’ve always felt a really positive reaction to what I’ve been doing. The funk scene – if you can call it a scene in Iceland – is very small.
The idea of such a potent form of black music being played in the particularly “white” arctic probably strikes some as novelty or a bit ironic.
We’re definitely not a novelty act. We are heavily influenced by black music – James Brown, P-Funk, Afro beat, but also a lot of other stuff. We are not copying others, we are doing our own thing within the tradition of the Afro-American musical tradition.
When was Jagúar formed and what are the main differences between that project and SJBB?
Jagúar was formed by Daði Birgisson, a great keyboard player. I met him and his brother Börkur and they invited me to sit in with the band. I never left. In contrast, SJSBB is a big band. In Jagúar we have three horns but in SJSBB there are three horn sections – one with four trumpets, one with four trombones and one with five saxophones. It gives me many more possibilities as a writer. Jagúar is a democracy; SJSBB is a monarchy. I love both projects.
What have been the highlights of both band’s careers so far?
Opening up for James Brown was one of the big highlights for Jagúar but also that we are still going strong. We’ve been through some line up changes but we are still writing new music and playing. For SJSBB I would have to say that touring Iceland in 2007 was a big highlight and also playing at Berlin Jazzfest and Nattjazz in Bergen recently.
What was it like to meet the Godfather of Soul James Brown?
“Fantastic” was what he said about us to his audience. When we met him he didn’t say much, though he complimented Ingi (bass player) for his great suit.
You have a new SJBB album coming: what can you tell us about it?
It’s titled “Helvítis Fokking Funk” and will be out on the 17th of June. We recorded it all together in one and a half days last April. It will be released on my own label SJS Music. Kiddi from Hjálmar recorded it. It sounds great.
Is there a new Jagúar record on the way?
Yes. We started working on it last year but only managed to record half of it. We’re waiting for the right time to finish it. I’m very excited about it.
What other plans do you have for either SJBB or Jagúar this year?
SJSBB will play and promote the new album. We will play with Jimi Tenor on the 1st of July at a new funk festival that I’m putting together. Jagúar will hopefully finish the 5th album.
Which other contemporary funk/soul/jazz bands worldwide have impressed you in recent times?
Antibalas, Budos Band, Jimi Tenor, Tony Allen, Hypnotic brass band, Jamie Lidell, Jamiroquai, Plantlife – to name a few.
Are there any goals you haven’t yet fulfilled as a full time funkateer?
Maybe working with George Clinton? Also I would love to bring more funk artists to Iceland…
Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band @ MySpace