Ever the adventurer, Serj Tankian, the mind and voice behind System of a Down, is at it again with Jazz-iz-Christ, the musician’s second solo release this summer following his all-orchestral sojourn, Orca. Though at times possessing classical flourishes in part thanks to guest violinist David Alpay (“Song of Sand”), the music is largely jazzy—as you might’ve guessed from the album’s title and deliberate, bargain-bin cover art.
Still, as is always the case with Mr. Tankian, it’s not quite that easy. Performed by an ace collection of session players, this is an engaging, moody and often humorous instrumental affair, save for a few tracks where Serj lends his voice, and one that brims with a catnip medley of lounge, funk, jazz and even Armenian folk.
This way-out amalgam wastes no time in bucking from the gate with opener “Fish Don’t Scream,” kicking off with an upright bass and some brilliant work from crack trumpeter Tom Duprey, all before disparate excursions routinely come and go. Just seconds later, a brusque and clownish prog passage enters, which inevitably mutates into a delightfully disco-inflected melody, sounding the part of an intro to a ’70s primetime soap: Think Hotel or Dynasty—or maybe the lost Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack. It goes without saying, but this is a very good thing.
Another case study for the album’s controlled nuttiness can be found in “Honeycharmed,” where a woolly synth lays down an oom-pah rhythm as the song’s swelling arrangement accommodates a longing, high-register trumpet. At first seeming like a sea shanty jazz, along the way you’ll hear the track take a number of foreign thematic turns, until finally these distinct personalities coalesce in a single rubber room—against doctor’s orders. Bouncing around you’ll not only find a kind of lounge-horror vibe, as steady jazz drums augment what seems like a take on the Beetlejuice soundtrack, but also competing strains of sweaty, trumpet-muted burlesque and—at this point, why not?—sitar-laced belly dancing music. All this and, still, the doctor’s orders were rightly flouted—as the song’s arrangement and musicianship are clever enough to accommodate, and even celebrate, such variety.
Jazz also gets downright campy with the brisk and sweaty jam session of “Arpeggio Bust,” a winking pastiche of hokey muzak sounds, including a tasty electric guitar run sure to raise the eyebrows of George Benson. “Balcony Chats” is also genius, and perhaps the record’s slickest moment, evoking a sultry Middle Eastern nightlife permeated with indigo clouds of hookah smoke. Valeri Tostov, who enlivens every track on which he performs, flutes his ass off over a stern and moody porn groove, anchored by a heavily-delayed guitar phrase that would be as much at home on an Indian porn VHS.
Somehow amid this, Serj makes room for serious moments, too. “Distant Thing” is mellowed by warm guitar arpeggios strummed to a slow tempo, creating the perfect environ for a pensive and languid trumpet, again supplied by Duprey. As one of the few songs with singing, Serj’s hushed vocal fits hand in glove with the simmering arrangement, offering an interesting contrast to the singer’s more bombastic performances with System of a Down. “Garuna,” too, shows a quieter Serj, this time covering a prayerful work by the eminent Armenian priest and composer, Komitas. All told, Jazz-iz-Christ is successful in all it attempts—perhaps because its vision is so at ease, so natural in its strangeness, that it’s hard to assail such grade-A musicianship and unflinching conviction. Serj, you weirdo, it’s a winner.