In Your Speakers Reviews 'Jazz-Iz Christ'

From In Your Speakers

2013 has already been a crazy year, and now we stand poised for one of its more head-scratching moments. I’m sure you remember Serj Tankian from the turn of the millennium – if not by name, than as the Fu-Manchu-sporting frontman of System of a Down. Aside from their “GRABABRUSHANDPUTALITTLEMAKEUP!” antics, they were also an incredibly outspoken political force and the most radically leftist band out there. A decade plus has passed since SOAD’s heyday, and Serj is branching into an area of music that will have System adherents WTFing, but makes perfect sense if you think about it.

Jazz-Iz Christ can be called a lot of things, but perhaps the most concise (but least useful) definition is “jazz album.” In actuality, it’s all over the map of musical styles, containing everything from American jazz to Arabian, oriental to orchestral, slow jam to a little bit of grindcore. It’s very messy and splattering, yet also unified and organized. The first third or so of the album uses jazz as a jumping-off point, exploring textures of sound with both frantic twists and lazy pirouettes. The first six tracks are all instrumental save for “End of Time,” which features a female voice, sultry and luring like a belly dancer for an Egyptian pharaoh.

In the middle, the volume knob is turned to the left and Serj has his first singing gig with “Distant Thing.” This is the most traditionally jazz song on the album. One could picture a smoky club at 3am, the upright bassist nearly falling over in a whiskey-plied stupor. “Song of Sand” follows in kind, but that smoky club transforms into a burning desert. The trumpet’s drifting lead part is delirious in the heat, and it’s joined halfway through by a violin that brings the promise of drink. Last in this trilogy is “Garuna,” hauntingly beautiful in its reductionism. Just a piano and Serj singing in his native tongue, it’s a far cry from SOAD’s frenetically excitable brutality.

The last third returns to the instrumental motif of the first. Most notable is “Jinn,” which alternates quickly in modes of airy flute and harsh percussion, much like the fire god from which it takes its name. Capping Jazz-Iz Christ off is a song that doesn’t fit into any of these categories and the most pop-oriented song on here, “Miso Soup.” Serj’s strengths as a songwriter are evident in the balancing act of lightly wacky humor with a weighty message. To make a song about the interconnectedness and symbiosis of all living things, Serj doesn’t need anything more than “we all like miso soup.” And a little “gluten free-ee…”

The album art for Jazz-Iz Christ, though as literal a translation of the title as possible, has an eyebrow-raising effect. The sole foreground feature – other than the title on a gold starburst off to the side – is a baritone saxophone crucified on a cross, complete with stigmata-like wounds and a crown of thorns, shining with a white aura. Very offensive to some, chuckle-inducing to others – and to still others, both – it’s ultimately ham-fisted and a poor choice.

Serj takes the cake for coming out of left field with this one, but also succeeds at his projected goal. If nothing else, Jazz-Iz Christ will break the listener out of a rut, no matter what particular rut they are in.

Track List:
1.Fish Don’t Scream
2.End of Time
4.Arpeggio Bust
5.Yerevan to Paris
6.Scotch In China
7.Distant Thing
8.Song of Sand
10.Balcony Chats
12.Waitomo Caves
13.Through Nights and Hope
14.Papa Blue
15.Miso Soup

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