CONCERT REVIEW: Chilly Gonzales in Ottawa

(It’s no secret that I love all kinds of music.  If it tickles my ears and makes me feel something, I am in my element with it.  What I love more than anything is when an artist, known and famous within one genre, branches out into another genre and tries to calm the chaos and make beautiful sounds in an unfamiliar place.  Muse and the music that comes from it all come from the same place, within, and to have the courage to create and then perform works outside a comfort zone is the most exciting form of expression to me.  So, when HEAD ON A SWIVEL contributor JP Sadek came to me and said his sister Isis Sadek had written a review of the Chilly Gonzales show, I knew I had to share this with you.  Awesome. – FATS)

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Chilly Gonzales enthralled the audience at Dominion-Chalmers United Church last night in Ottawa. Billed as Gonzales’ “only solo piano show of the year”, the concert fits well within the new Music and Beyond Festival‘s aim of featuring musical explorations that revisit classic genres or traditions by infusing them with more contemporary modes. Montreal-raised and Europe-based pianist (self-named “Musical genius”) Chilly Gonzales appeals to numerous audiences: he is known for his collaborations as producer on two albums with chanteuse Feist and electro-musicians Daft Punk and has made a name for himself as a composer with his solo piano albums. What made last night’s show so enjoyable for its all-ages audience is that, in his performance, Gonzales paid tribute to music itself and he did so by breaking down the barriers between classical music and contemporary genres, just as he did those between the artist and his audience.

592099-y-quelque-chose-tres-purThe concert started off with a selection of solo piano pieces played with aplomb and in a way that combined both the type of virtuosity highlighted in classical styles with a clearly pop sensitivity in the compositions’ motifs. Gonzales’ big smile upon receiving applause and cheers after the first two songs expressed how pleased he was at performing in Ottawa for the first time. While I did expect him to address us and to explain some aspects of his playing and compositions (since I had seen him do this on concert recordings), I was surprised at how much Gonzales involved us. The show quickly evolved from a strictly musical performance to include a combination of musical musings and playful demonstrations of the techniques that make Gonzales’ compositions and sound unique. For example, rap songs in 3/4 (they are typically written in 4/4) also made inventive use of the piano as a percussive instrument by slamming the key cover against the body of the piano.
In addition to his virtuosity, Gonzales’ style of playing is physical and readily moves from fortissimos and a harder style of playing the lower keys to a delicate and measured use of the higher melodic keys. Similarly, while in his introductions and musical musings, he reveals himself and the persona (“Chilly Gonzales”) that he has constructed, it is equally vital for him to engage his audience and invite us to participate in his performances. One of the most surprising moments –particularly pleasing for those who had learned an instrument but no longer played it– came when Gonzales invited a member of the audience to play with him, developing her part with a three-note structure on which he then guided her to improvise. This was the culmination of the artist’s critique of styles of music teaching that privilege technique over enjoyment, just as his play with classic or commercialized genres lays bare the music industry’s flattening effect on the music that it produces.

In one of his musical musings, Gonzales suggested that songs written in the major key (the music that pleased kings and queens) were “conservative” in that they didn’t seek to critique the status quo and encouraged irreflexive contentment. Songs written in the minor key, on the other hand, had a subversive potential and even 2015_hr_mu-gonzalespossibly an ability to question capitalism (his words). Gonzales’ career possibly illustrates both these facets: if his solo piano work illustrates the “minor” tendency within classical music, then his collaborations in pop and dance music, as well as Apple’s selection of his piano composition “Never stop” for its inaugural ipad commercial, could very well fit on the other side of the spectrum. Gonzales has often been characterized as post-modern. Last night’s show encouraged us to nuance this characterization: while he thrives by skillfully combining older and new styles, he (fortunately) lacks the blasé attitude typical of the post-modern styles. Commenting on the fact that he was playing in a church, he stated that “music is my religion”. Chilly Gonzales produced a tribute to music precisely by subverting the genre of musical performance itself, giving us this portrait of the artist as a musician while tapping into music’s essential function of connecting people. In an age in which most of us listen to music individually, this is precious. – ISIS SADEK