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Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III review – a parlour pianist reshapes three-minute pop songs

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/09/2018 John Lewis

After making his name as an average alt-rocker and a rather awful comic rapper, the Canadian eccentric who calls himself Chilly Gonzales now dresses in a smoking jacket (apparently modelling himself on Kenny Everett’s ludicrous latex-chinned French bon viveur, Marcel Wave) and serves as a one-man cheerleader for the piano. He publishes sheet music, encouraging lapsed pianists to practise again. He performs piano covers of songs by everyone from Weezer to Lana Del Rey, from Drake to Phil Collins. He makes fascinating podcasts, nerdishly explaining music theory on the piano through the medium of bubblegum pop. And he makes rather good Debussy-ish albums like this, his third of original piano solos.

Artwork for Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano IIIPhotograph: Alexandre Isard

His style is metrical and precise, his fingering dainty. When Gonzales “bends” notes, he doesn’t use the slurring technique of a blues pianist, but instead plays crisp, chromatic runs. His compositions are filled with elegant misdirection, gentle dissonance and musical in-jokes. Prelude In C Sharp Major twists the arpeggio from Bach’s C major prelude and recasts it in a disorientating 5/4 time signature. Present Tense, a fast and dramatic fugue in 7/8 time, is dedicated to Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk, and as the piece develops you realise he’s playing the riff from Daft Punk’s Around the World but hiding it in a Bach-like contrary motion pattern. Likewise, Be Natural is dedicated to the Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House, referencing their single Space Song. Cactus Impromptu, a jagged, Keith Jarrett-ish rhythmic improvisation laden with jerky grace notes, is dedicated to the Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou – the intriguing “honkytonk nun” who plays piano solos in a similar style.

But you don’t have to understand these references to enjoy this album. Gonzales’s music is free from the sardonic mischief you find in, say, Satie. Even when referencing the haunting flattened fifth of Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 on pieces such as Famous Hungarians and Chico, Gonzales doesn’t linger or probe: he tells his story and gets the hell out. He’s like an Edwardian parlour pianist, reshaping the tropes of fin-de-siècle impressionism into a series of concise, three-minute pop songs. It’s very satisfying to hear.

Other contemporary classical music out this month

Also from Canada is Sarah Davachi, best known for her spooky explorations on analogue synths. On Gave in Rest, her echo-laden drones seem to be made using voices, acoustic instruments and church organs, all processed through a cathedral-like acoustic until it sounds like medieval plainsong put through a dub chamber.

Lonnie Holley, a 68-year-old African American sculptor-turned-avant-garde-musician from the American south, has been making space-age electronic blues for a while. MITH sees him apply this aesthetic to gritty everyday concerns, singing about racism, police brutality and political corruption over a series of delightfully inappropriate backings that draw together numerous strands of Afro-futurist music – free jazz, squelchy electronica and astral soul music.


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