Chilly Gonzales is the master of his instrumental domain

This profile of pianist Chilly Gonzales was written for the Vancouver Sun in November 2012.

Chilly Gonzales isn’t afraid to throw down a gauntlet.

“I happen to think that instrumental music is the best way to get emotional power across, more so than words and music together,” he announces over the phone from Quebec, where he has just opened his latest tour with an appearance at the Pop Montreal festival.

“This is a debate that’s been stretching on for centuries.”

The Montreal-born pianist, producer and rapper, whose real name is Jason Charles Beck, explains that in the classical world the Italians considered the aria to be the height of musical expression. With lyrics, you could articulate feelings that you would never be able to speak. “Then the Germans kind of killed that idea with Beethoven and the idea of the symphony, the sonata,” he continues. “I agree with the Germans.”

It’s not a surprise that he’s taken a side in that debate – this is the musician who broke the world record for the longest solo performance and once challenged party rocker Andrew W.K. to a piano battle. He’s just released his second keys-only album, Solo Piano II, a return to the instrumental work that earned him comparisons to groundbreaking minimalist Erik Satie. Yet despite the classical training he received at McGill’s prestigious Schulich School of Music, Gonzales situates himself firmly in the pop world, often collaborating with the likes of singer/ songwriter Leslie Feist and avant-garde electro -clash diva Peaches.

Taking a cue from surrealist comedians like Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen, the 6-foot-3, proudly hirsute pianist likes to appear onstage in a robe and slippers like a Victorian dandy welcoming you into his drawing room. He talks in paragraphs, giving lengthy speeches on the minute details of how his short, deceptively simple songs are constructed, right down to the emotional effect of certain chord choices. Every performance is like a little music lesson from an incredibly charming instructor.

At one point during our interview Gonzales finds a piano and demonstrates a few of his tricks. Where Feist and Peaches use lyrics to express themselves, he employs a collection of “gestures,” a kind of musical shorthand that is designed to reach out and grab his audience by the emotional throat. Modern-day gestures often take the form of film or pop music references, which Gonzales applies liberally to his work. He’s even been known to break into the theme to Knight Rider mid-show.

He remembers learning these gestures from his older brother back when they were kids. “He would say, ‘hey, you know this chord – this one makes it sound like James Bond,’ ” recounts Gonzales. “I still use them to this day. There’s a song on Solo Piano II that extensively uses that chord.”

But just because he’s a firm believer in the power of instrumental music, doesn’t mean that Gonzales’ music fits in with jazz or classical. “None of that I’m interested in,” he says. “I don’t want to improvise – I want a catchy tune. I don’t want complicated musical architecture because I think it should be verse-chorus, verse-chorus. Thank you. Goodbye. I grew up watching Much Music and so there’s all these gestures in there, but in the end I’m approaching it a bit like a rapper approaches samples or as a pop musician approaches it, which is to say efficient and economical, catchy. The pop moment.”

As Gonzales sees it, classical and jazz have alienated their audiences because of an unwillingness to evolve. He wants to be a man of his time, a statement he repeats in interview after interview like a personal mantra. “I want to look out in the audience and see people my age and I want to see pretty girls,” he says.

“I want to see hip-hop heads and I want to see indie rockers. Thankfully, that’s what my audience looks like these days. I’m proud of that.”

And like a rapper or pop star, Gonzales has constructed an onstage persona that makes his shows much more fun than the average piano recital. “Music doesn’t speak for itself,” he says. “Music is a fantasy world and you have to show people who you want to be. That’s what’s beautiful in pop music, this idea of authenticity. The real pop musicians and certainly the rappers, they understood long ago, authenticity is not something you show. You show your fantasies and through that people can connect and identify. And that’s the most authentic experience of all.”

But he knows that he wouldn’t be able to do any of it without his beloved instrument.

“That’s why these solo piano records are so important because they remind me and my audience what makes the rest possible,” says Gonzales. “Otherwise, I’m just a guy in a bathrobe and slippers telling stupid jokes.”