February 8, 2010

Introducing Chilly Gonzales

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Chilly Gonzales takes the stage at the Pigalle Club, a Forties-style dinner and cabaret spot in London’s West End (circular tables, low ceilings, regular intervals of green velvet), and assumes his place at the piano. He is wearing a brown knee-length silk robe with matching trousers and a pair of generously cushioned slippers. His hands are encased in pristine white gloves. With shadowy deep-set eyes and slicked back hair, he is the very image of the brooding piano maestro.

He eases into a medley of slow, spare classical pieces. The music starts off somber and restrained, but his fingers move with such fluidity that they can’t resist adding little flourishes here and there. The embellishments begin to mount up. What opened with an air of great solemnity is now becoming increasingly comical. Now he’s playing a blues standard with one hand, a blur of white hammering away at the lower octaves.

He wraps it up and turns to confront his audience. “Hi, I’m Chilly Gonzales. If you don’t know me, I’m a Grammy-nominated producer.” This is true. He continues: “I hold the Guinness world record for longest continuous piano concert at 27 hours.” This is also true. “I’ve got a lot of famous friends.” He pauses for effect, then performs a modest raise of the shoulders. “In France, where I live, they call me un génie musicale.”

In 2004, Gonzales, who is neither French nor Hispanic but Canadian and whose real name is Jason Beck, released Solo Piano, an album of concise minimalist classical numbers in the vein of Erik Satie which gave substance to the génie musicale claim. Those who came to know Gonzales through that album – his best-selling by some margin – would have been shocked to learn that the author of those beautiful, delicate pieces had previously made, among other things, a gleefully profane lo-fi rap record called The Entertainist.

It’s not entirely surprising that a musician who rolls out his “unfuckwithable resume” at the beginning of a show, and makes unabashed reference to his musical genius at every opportunity, should dabble with rap. Rapping is, after all, the art of the inflated brag. The Sugarhill Gang were extolling their globally-endorsed sexual prowess and enviable motoring options as hip-hop drew its first breath, and given the amount of hot air that’s been blown over 4/4 beats since then, it’s no wonder the ice caps are melting.

“It’s up to them to decide after the concert if I really am a musical genius. I sincerely think it, but I’m aware that I can’t just say it in that 100 percent sincere way, so I try to play with it.”

Gonzales embraces the spirit of boastfulness on The Entertainist and its more lavishly produced follow-up, Presidential Suite, although in Gonzoworld the line between brag and self-skewering gag is always porous. Yes, he may be “the greatest entertainer of the year”, but he is also “the worst MC” who gets “more pussy than a priest”. He is “the prankster Frank Sinatra”, a “combination of Joe Stalin and Woody Allen”, whom you may address as “Fuckeye” or “the one-eyed Jew”. Or “Chilly Chaplin”. Or “Santa Klaus Kinski”, because he spent a few years living in Berlin.

“I am the worst MC” is at once a villainous sneer and an admission that Gonzales’ rapping abilities circa 2000 left something to be desired. In fact, as he demonstrates during tonight’s show, Gonzales is a pretty good rapper – stylistically derivative perhaps, but deft, playful and always entertaining. He spouts vast jets of nonsense in his rhymes but somehow manages to be more upfront than any other rapper you’d care to name.

Musicians rarely speak about, let alone lyricize, the shallow calculations that often underscore big career decisions, yet here is Gonzales on why he left Canada for Berlin: “I still remember when it first occurred to me./ Fuck it, I’m gonna move to Germany./ I don’t speak German, screw it/ But hey! I’m Jewish/ And I need a new press angle and that should do it.”

These kinds of outrageous proclamations make listening to Gonzales, or attending one of his shows, enormously fun. His almost pathological frankness presents an interesting challenge, however, when it comes to interviewing the guy. Any criticism you’d level at him has already been anticipated, and slyly underlined, in his music, or on other platforms. When he released Soft Power, his paean to Seventies soft-rock, in 2008, he posted a video online in which a Mercury label honcho begs him to take singing lessons to soften his harsh Montrealer tones. In the clip he circulated to promote his London dates, Gonzales tells a buffoonish interviewer, also played by Jason Beck, that although he “owns” France, he remains an underdog in England, adding: “I’m not a young man anymore. This could be my last chance.”

So why all the second-guessing?

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