CHILLY Gonzales is a master of many genres from hip-hop to musicals, composition to production. Fiona Shepherd meets the multi-tasking musician
CHILLY GONZALES is a musical genius. Who says so? He does. Regularly. For example, while describing the “wide-ranging entertainment extravaganza” that is his Piano Talk Show - which he’s bringing back to the Fringe this weekend, in case anyone would like to double-check his claims – he has this to say: “You get the full picture of the tortured megalomaniacal musical genius that I am.”
Fortunately, he is not alone in his assessment. The last time he performed in Scotland he was described by The Scotsman as “disgustingly talented”. Many others have also drunk the Chilly Kool-Aid.
“The funny thing is when people start to believe it, you kind of forget if you were joking in the first place,” says the man born Jason Charles Beck. “Every time I heard someone call themselves [a musical genius] they would be crucified and any no-go zone piques my curiosity. Now I just say it like it’s part of my name. It’s become my alias. [Rapper] Rick Ross gets to be the Teflon Don so I get to be the Musical Genius.”
The thing is, as some other genius has already noted, many a true word is spoken in jest. Even a cursory glance over the extensive Gonzales CV confirms that he is, at the very least, a musical renaissance man, working fluently across genres and disciplines, from hip-hop to musicals, from composition to production.
Following a classical training in childhood, a jazz apprenticeship and a moderately successful career (in his native Canada) fronting an alternative rock band, Beck moved to Berlin around the turn of the millennium and made his name (that name being Gonzales) as a rapper, electro artiste and producer, forming a mischievous unholy trinity with fellow ex-pat Peaches and DJ/producer Tiga.
Then, in another musical volte-face, he returned to his classical roots with Solo Piano, an album of straight, simple yet striking Erik Satie-influenced compositions which, to his surprise, became his best-selling release to date, attracting a whole new audience to his work.
“I love that in the old days if you were a composer you would write in genre,” he says. “You would say ‘I’m writing a jig, I’m writing a minuet, I’m writing a symphony’ and there were rules, like a symphony was four movements long. I’m not a musician who believes in breaking musical rules. When I’m in a style, I’m extremely respectful of the house rules.”
Gonzales is now based in Paris, where he has worked with Gallic musical royalty, arranging and producing albums for Jane Birkin and Charles Aznavour (who he describes as “a pretty gangsta dude”). Oh, and did I mention his Guinness World Record for longest solo concert? In May 2009, he bettered the previous record by almost an hour, clocking up 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds of primo piano-playing, reeling off close to 300 songs without a sheet of music in front of him.
“It’s much more of a war story for me now, but at the time it was an important way to focus in on what I do – which is extreme performance. What I love most is to play piano and blow people’s minds, and I wanted to do something that focused in on my sense of competition, the endurance and, of course, my musical genius. There was an internet event around it, but there was no album to sell. I’m not the guy who makes the trendy album every couple of years; my game is different and it was a way of recentring that. When you do something like that you do it because you need to. It was like positive traumatization in a way, taking a bit more control, and saying I’m really focused on being more and more like myself as my career goes on.”
In recent times, this has resulted in an orchestral rap album, The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, which he made with his film and TV composer brother Chris-tophe, soundtracking an iPad advert with one of his piano raps and another classical album, the forthcoming Solo Piano II. Material from any or all of his endeavours could make it into his latest Piano Talk Show, which does what it says on the tin, and so much more.
“My entertainment phil- osophy isn’t just that you have to give the people what they want, because then you become a cynical musician,” he says. “But I think to be a purist is also a certain recipe for failure. So the in-between is you have to give people something they didn’t know they wanted or couldn’t imagine. The Black Swan theory – that’s something to aspire to. It’s great to be in competition with oneself and have camps of people who prefer you this way or that. Because it’s all me. I want to be a man of my time – that’s the bottom line.”
• Chilly Gonzales brings his Piano Talk Show to the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 26 August, 9:45pm. Solo Piano II is released by Gentle Threat on 27 August.
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