Gonzales: Solo Piano CD and From Major to Minor DVD

[18 July 2007]

By Mark W. Adams

A few years back, Gonzales served as the prankster-rap partner of Peaches and cranked out a few of his own releases as MC extraordinaire “Chilly Gonzales”.  But this artist is hard to pin down.  Would you believe that the same guy who wrote “Ain’t No Stoppin’ the Poppin’” and “The Worst MC” now has two releases that focus not on gold chains and big beats, but… um, Gonzales sitting at the grand piano?!?

It’s true: for both a DVD and a CD, Gonzales sheds his pink suit and dance routines to display his mastery of the ivories.  Though both releases have been popular in Europe for a while, the year 2007 brings them to the US and—hopefully—to a wide and receptive audience.  Though they are very different, each is terrifically enjoyable. 

Let’s start with the DVD From Major to Minor, which features performances from the Piano Vision concerts that Gonzales intermittently holds in Europe.  ‘Concerts’ might not be a wholly appropriate term, however.  The DVD begins with 50 minutes of footage from a Gonzales-taught ‘masterclass’ in which the musician brings various non-musical audience members to the stage.  These ‘students’ share the teacher’s stool as he guides them through surprisingly successful spontaneous collaborations.  In his tutorial on the differentiation between major and minor, Gonzales leaps into various deconstructions of familiar songs, all while subtly revealing where his preference lies.  He also enlists teaching assistants: Daft Punk helps him teach the session on rhythm, while Feist wordlessly and creatively “co-writes” the melody lesson.

Laughing, sweating, and stomping, Gonzales spectacularly proves that the piano isn’t just the territory of stodgy orchestras and sleazy lounge acts.  At no time during the class is oh-so serious sheet music present; instead Gonzales humorously sports bedroom shoes and a grotesquely large emerald ring. The sessions are more than informative and accessible; they are entertaining, endearing, and often hilarious.  Gonzales’ humble theatricality enables a breakdown of the barrier between performer and audience, and, in the process, viewers find themselves laughing as they learn about the influence of Wagner versus Ravel. 

The “White Gloves” concert which follows reveals that, while Gonzales is at the keys, a piano can be soulful, funky, elegant, and euphoric.  With one piano, two tambourines, and a guitar, Gonzales and pals Feist, Mocky, and Jamie Lidell romp through several songs and close with a hand-clapping and delightfully percussive version of Lidell’s “Multiply”.  And there’s still more on the DVD—including a piano “battle” with classical improviser Jean-Francois Zygel, and two music videos from Gonzales in prank-rap mode.  While viewing, don’t forget to look for the G-spots—brief pop-ups on the screen which, when clicked, lead to footage of some of Gonzales’ more outlandish antics.

Stripping away the visuals, the silliness, and the sweat, the 16-track Solo Piano is as it says—simply Gonzales and the piano.  The CD has drawn comparisons to Satie and rightfully became one of Universal France’s most popular jazz albums of 2005.  In the introductory liner notes, Gonzales writes that—contrary to the assumption that the piano is a ‘colorful’ instrument—he believes the piano creates sounds that are black and white, “much like an old silent movie.  Staring down at my hands, I imagine each piano piece as a shadow against the wall”.  This is quite a serious statement from someone who can be seen, well, humping his piano in one of the aforementioned G-spots. 

While Solo Piano has amusing song titles like “Paristocrats” and “Salon Salloon”, the music has something more than comedic weight.  Instead of exhibiting a grand humor, these tracks—which average about two and a half minutes each—are delicate and impressionistic with an understated wit.  They convey a sense of lightness and gravity, serenity and spaciousness.  Perhaps Gonzales would refute the colorful references, but “Gogol” sounds like the unfurling of spring, and “The Tourist” could well-accompany a leisurely drive through the country.  “CM Blues” dwells upon a cinematic noir theme, while closer “One Note at a Time” could serve well during the end credits of a somber black and white movie. 

I initially wanted each of these 16 études to be further explored.  But after repeat listens, I knew that the 1:37 “Bermuda Triangle” was perfectly executed, succinct and strong as is.  Similarly, the brief “Oregano” and “Basmati” offer no more than they need.  Taken as a whole, Solo Piano is a delightful album for the active, scrutinizing listener (admire the resonance and interplay) but is also delectable background music (Chardonnay and champignons, anyone?). 

Scour your music collection and the web and you’ll find that “Gonzo” has been a collaborator with Jane Birkin, Buck 65, Daft Punk, Jamie Lidell, Mocky, and a French composer named Charles Aznavour.  He produced Feist’s Let it Die and her most recent release, The Reminder.  Thankfully From Major to Minor and Solo Piano offer Gonzales an opportunity to step to the forefront as something more than “Chilly G”.  These two releases might cause Chilly-lovin’ electroheads and classical/jazz purists to bump heads in the music aisle—each looking for more music by this chameleon-like, Canadian-born, Paris-based musician.  In his MC mode, Gonzales titled an album “The Entertainist”, and these clever, entertaining releases prove that it is a very apt designation.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/gonzales-solo-piano-cd-and-from-major-to-minor-dvd/