New Classical Tracks: Chilly Gonzales - Solo Piano II

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
October 9, 2012
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Chilly Gonzales is a classically-trained Canadian-born musician from the MTV era whose goal is to be a man of his time. When he's not improvising at the keyboard, he's dabbling in rap, pop, and electronic music. One of his songs has even been used in an iPad commercial. Chilly Gonzales made his first solo piano album in 2004. He's just released a follow-up to that recording titled Solo Piano II.

Chilly Gonzales is a cross-over artist who, every once in a while, dips his toe into the world of classical and jazz using rap and pop as his entry point. His parents know him as Jason Charles Beck, to his friends, he's Gonzo. So who is Chilly Gonzales? "Chilly Gonzales is my brand name," he explains, "and I think Jason Beck, my real name, just didn't really have a ring to it. I wanted a name that was a little bit ridiculous, that was far from my roots. As a Hungarian Jew, you can't really go much farther than a fake Mexican, can you?

"I grew up with Boy George and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Smiths. These figures were very complex and at the same time ridiculous. And that's really the culture I grew up with, that's who I wanted to be. I think you look back and think, OK, those guys like Franz Liszt, for example, who definitely had the attitude of the pop artist. Erik Satie, obviously a very conceptual thinker, ahead of his time, using very simple forms. So whether it's virtuosity or simplicity or humor, there have been people along the way that realized that the combination of being a slave to your audience and being musically talented is a very potent cocktail!"

Chilly Gonzales has borrowed the idea of sampling from the world of MTV and rap. He says music should be simple, it should be economical, it should be one basic idea more or less repeated over and over again with a couple variations. "My piano music is that," he explains. "I borrow a lot from the colors of classical music and I borrow a lot of the jazz touch in how I play the piano."

On the piece Evolving Doors Chilly explores into the colors of J.S. Bach. "I was looking for a way to recreate the effect that you get in some of the Bach harpsichord music," Chilly explains, "a lot of furious octave passages. I stumbled upon a much more brutal way of playing octaves, just exchanging my left and right hands and creating almost like an echo pedal that maybe Elvis would have used when he was singing, just a very, very short delay. So I created a kind of etude-type piece around that way of playing octaves, more or less recreating a feeling I have when I listen to Bach as a pop fan.

"On a song like La Bulle, I'm really referencing that grey area between European classical music and jazz music. I think Scott Joplin figures into that, Gershwin as well, and of course the French Impressionists."

Chilly composed a piece titled White Keys to prove that music played on white keys doesn't always have to sound like a flowery fairy tale. "So I started my song in D," he explains, "and basically used white keys and I shifted the range of the piano. Each subsequent verse goes down an octave and by the middle of the piece I'm playing very, very low, dark stuff that you could never really imagine would sound like a white-key piece. Chopin had a black-key etude, which I guess was six flats. So I have a white-key etude with no flats, no sharps.

Whether he's mixing Bach and Elvis Presley, or backing up well-known rap or pop stars, or breaking a world record for the longest solo piano performance (which he did in 2009), Chilly Gonzales is eager to make music for his generation, without worrying too much about conventions from an earlier day. "I think I always saw myself as an entertainer," Chilly admits, "because that means you're really taking pains to reach an audience."

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