Auteur pianist, rapper, surrealist piano teacher, comedian and vaudeville entertainer, Chilly Gonzales is a fairly unusual proposition. Born Jason Beck, the Canada-raised, Europe-residing musician has collaborated with the likes of Peaches and Feist, and has recorded a dozen albums under numerous pseudonyms in various styles. While mainstream success has eluded him, two albums stand out: ‘Solo Piano’ from 2004 was exactly that, a record that demonstrated his exceptional skills as player and composer, while last year’s follow up ‘Solo Piano II‘ built on that reputation to greater acclaim.
In the grand surroundings of Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall, Gonzales strides on stage dressed like an outré Noel Coward in monogrammed dressing gown and slippers, looking out from under slicked hair curled in ringlets. Mockingly soaking up the applause, he arranges himself at the sleek black Steinway standing alone on the stage’s bare boards and opens with the gentle caress of ‘Rideaux Lunaire’, moving in quick succession to ‘Othello’ and ‘Kenaston‘, three of the finest and most delicate pieces from ‘Solo Piano II’. Looming large above the stage is a screen upon which a camera projects the piano’s keyboard from above, allowing the audience to see in monochrome Gonzales’ gnarled hands flying over the keys. Sometimes the speed of his fingers gets ahead of the camera, producing a choppyness that seen alongside the piano accompaniment gives the impression of watching Metropolis.
If the audience thought this was to be a straightforward classical recital, they must be unfamilar with Gonzales’ work. Between peices Gonzales entertains with impromptu music theory lessons, asides, and anecdotes from how the music was written. Introducing ‘White Keys‘ – played with a venom not heard on the album, the left hand notes growling louder, ringing out under the beat of his feet on the floor – he explains: “When composing I sometimes have a problem I want to solve, or a solution I want to avoid” – in this case using only the white keys, as a challenge. An explanation of major and minor keys before ‘Major vs Minor‘ sees him giving renditions of relentlessly upbeat pieces like ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Frère Jacques’ in the style of funereal fugues. He recalls the day he realised that minor chords were the tones of the underdog: “Minor is Warsaw 1942; only kings and fascists use major chords.”
The stand-up comic in him dies hard – a lengthly aside on how arpeggios are a lazy man’s musical harmony turns into digs at Sebastian Tellier, Jools Holland (“no one wants to listen to boogie woogie”), Daft Punk, and that if you don’t like rap “…that’s fine. You can just not like rap, and be racist.”
On rapping, no Chilly Gonzales gig is complete without it (“I took my inner Larry David and exaggerated it”), and he delivers ‘Supervillain Music’ and ‘Beans’ from 2011’s ‘Unspeakable’ album in which he riffs in a chamber-rap fashion on the classic hip-hop themes of repping his skills and making mo’ money. Breaking out of the fouth wall, a woman from the audience accompanies him on ‘Bongo Monologue’, with hilarious results.
Gonzales’ mix of classical talent, sharp observation, Jewish chutzpah and a sense of the absurd provides a compelling two hours of music and sillyness. It’s not something you’d necessarily think to take your Chopin-loving grandma to, but judging by the rapturous applause, standing ovation and not one but two encores, she’d probably enjoy herself if you did.
Words and pictures first published in Clash Magazine issue 87, June 2013.