Chilly Gonzales

A classical pop-hero

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He is a rapper, music teacher, comedian — Guinness record holder, too (he played the piano more than 27 hours in succession). Now virtuoso Chilly Gonzales has released a chamber music album. Even it, though, is fun — and pop.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Alexandre Isard
„Ich habe Popstar-Fantasien! Ich will an der Zimmerdecke tanzen! Ich bin ein Mann meiner Zeit!“

When meeting a pianist for the first time, people rather involuntarily seem to glance at the artist’s hands, looking, perhaps, for particularly long yet graceful fingers and other physical traits that might explain the musical beauty born through them. With Chilly Gonzales, though, his bushel of chest hair distracts from any such mental meanderings as it pushes out of his unbuttoned shirt like a mini rain forest overtaking new territory.

Chilly steps out from a Berlin home’s front doorway, looks down Brunnenstrasse before inviting his visitor inside his temporary abode (booked via online home rental service Airbnb — with a piano as a must-have, of course). Clad in flannel pants, slippers, and grey wool jacket, his outfit suits both his woolly chest and hip Berlin-Mitte neighborhood.

The Montreal native thanks his assistant, in fluent French, for scheduling tonight’s flight to Paris and its related accommodations. He then throws himself onto the couch across from a clavier: His charisma unfolds, demanding attention in a way not wholly unlike the wild body hair, yet far more charmingly. This independent, talented, self-assured soul doesn’t much care about critics. He brings down borders. He widens horizons. He sells out — venues, that is (the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, two days ago). He drives audiences wild.

From the big button on his jacket smiles a portrait of Franz Liszt, classical music’s first pop star. Mixing these genres, pop and classical, is the core of Gonzales’ focus. At 43, he pushed the relationship further, recently releasing an album recorded with the Kaiser Quartett from Hamburg, Germany, entitled „Chambers“ that, while indeed chamber music, is, in his words, „pop music as well.“

„Even if I use a piano and a string quartett, in the end I want to write a three minute piece. That is why I say I make pop music. Even though there is no drummer, no singer, in my mind it’s still pop — with older tools, different tools. But still pop.”

While his training is primarily classical and jazz, his fame stemmed from pop — his electro albums, his work with renown fellow Canadian indie singers Feist and Peaches, his producing roles with British soul singer Jamie Lidell and French duo Daft Punk, his collaborations with rap stars (at one point he annointed himself Worst MC).

In 2011, he released „The Unspeakable”, perhaps the first rap album to feature orchestral arrangements. Some reviewers likened it to epic movie soundtracks. (Gonzales worked with his brother, the successful film composer Christophe Beck, on several soundtracks, actually).

„I treat my audience like a beautiful woman. And I mean it.“

Just about the time the music industry had become used to Chilly Gonzales, pop entertainer, he swung back to his classical roots and recorded two solo piano albums, each exclusively his own compositions, all instrumental, all charmingly minimalistic and melodically rich. Critics and the public alike were thrilled — confused (such elegant tunes by Worst MC?), but thrilled.

His musical genius developed through decades of experimentation, study, and more experimentaion. Born Jason Charles Beck, at age three he began teaching himself to play the piano and was soon tapping out melodies — Debussy, Shostakovich — he’d overhear during his brother’s music lessons. The boys’ grandfather took to working with him; later professionals stepped in. By the time he entered McGill University in Montreal, his foci were composition and jazz.

In the years that lead up to those studies, his life was a montage of classical and pop influences: On TV, for instance, he’d watched Glenn Gould perform Bach, then click a few stations over to enjoy Michael Jackson, Queen, Morrissey, and others light up MTV. He felt completely at home in both worlds, for which he credits his beloved hometown, „Montreal is this mixture of art-focused Europe and entertainment-focused America. I see myself as the embodiment of both influences.“

After college, young Jason moved to Berlin, where he adopted his now-famous alter ego, Chilly Gonzales, a fictional character, size XXL, slightly sinister, darkly funny. He performed in clubs, tried out all genres of music, and began creating and reciting rhymes while performing piano pieces. His combination of genres appealed.

A dozen albums later while in Paris, Chilly widened his audience farther by playing the piano, non-stop, for 27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds, establishing a new Guiness record by nearly a full hour. A year later, he gained even greater exposure when Apple began broadcasting his jazzy tune „Never Stop” in commercials launching the new iPad.

Chilly Gonzales is a fascinating performer: He practically attacks his instrument — such verve — seemingly always as if performing his final show. He sweats, he screams, he jokes, he romps and dances, always in his quintessential silky bath robes and slippers. „I am a slave to my audience,“ he says. „That is why I am an entertainer. I am not an artist who does things the way he wants to do. No, I am thinking of my audience the whole time. How would they like it? The audience is like a beautiful woman you try to give a compliment to, you try to entertain, you try to get to know. I treat my audience like a beautiful woman. And mean it.”

In other words, his performances kill.

„Chambers” is his latest seduction: The pieces are short, unpretentious, alluring — almost catty, at times, despite no lyrics. One critic described them, „as if Erik Satie walked out of a club in the wee morning hours, his head spinning with melodies.”

Gonzales dedicates the songs of „Chambers“ to modern and classical colleagues and personages alike — to Rick Ross and Juicy J.; to Mendelssohn and Henry XIII; to tennis legend John McEnroe („Advantage Points”); to the subconcious in „Freudian Slippers”. And with this concept and all its referentials, this chamber music album becomes pure pop. Sounds crazy, but in Chilly’s hands it works.

„No music is new. No instruments are new. No notes are new. It's always the same,“ Gonzales says. „When rap music came along, it used the principle of sampling. But sampling wasn't all that new. I could play some Haydn symphonies for you and you would realize that Haydn sampled a Mozart opera, as an inside joke between the two of them. But, yeah: he sampled. Rap didn't invent the idea of quoting back and forth. Rap didn't invent sampling. It just used it differently. That's what I try to show here.“

And demonstrate to students, as well, whether through „Re-Introduction Etudes“, a collection of fun, relatively easy learning pieces he published in 2014 for piano students, or the master classes on music history he teaches, typically from bookstores and concert halls, wherein he talks about his art and how, actually, little differs between „serious music“ and „entertainment“.

Gonzales performs with passion whether in concert or joke (well, semi-joke) „piano battles“ with comedians and musicians wherein both sides have to improvise on their respective instruments, then the audience decides the winner (Gonzales claims always him). But while his pop following revels in such show business, his classical collegues and even audiences rarely embraced his often comedic showmanship. In 2012, for instance, after performing with the BBC Symphonics, he decided to do some crowd surfing: He let himself be passed about on the hands of the audience; some members of the orchestra looked very worried.

Today, Gonzales again lives in Germany, Cologne this time; he’s touring Europe with the Kaiser Quartett. How does he feel about critics in the classical music scene? Is he vexed that he’s actually banned at some concert halls?

„Classical music is dead,“ he shrugs. „It killed itself, and it's their problem. I (long ago) made the decision to be a man of my time.“

Despite these words, a bit of frustration does arise: „The institution of classical music is not one that fits my personality or my fantasies,“ he says, sitting upright on the sofa, his voice louder than previously. „My fantasies were to be dancing on a ceiling — like Lionel Richie. I wanted to have a music video. I had pop star fantasies. At the same time, I wanted to keep my tools: My piano, and my romantic way of thinking.“

Chilly rests back again. He breathes deeply, then shakes his head. „They don’t even try to listen to the music I made. I'm just glad I had the strenght to leave that world. Because most people I went to school with, they stayed in the system. My music is supposed to be for everybody.“