BOOK/ CD REVIEW: Chilly Gonzales: Re-Introduction Etudes

Chilly Gonzales: Re-Introduction Etudes
( Éditions Bourgès R EBR 525. Book and CD review by Alison Bentley )

Chilly Gonzales (the Canadian pianist and composer formerly known as Jason Beck) has written a book of 24 short piano pieces aimed at luring ‘lapsed pianists’ back into playing. First, let me count the ways I find to avoid practising...the piano…dust it… call the piano tuner… now it’s too late to disturb the neighbours…set up the keyboard…where’s the music stand?... better clear out the cupboard…but the cats... Next question: can Chilly Gonzales help the reluctant pianist to sound like Keith Jarrett/Danilo Perez after - how long? -  about half an hour?

‘I feel people have to get back in touch with the joy of having their life saved by music,’ Gonzales told Radio 3. He’s very serious and at the same time very funny about music. He calls himself a ‘sit-down comic’, and his compositions are accompanied, like Satie’s, with quirky comments: ‘Don’t overdo it- deadpan’, or ‘Just play it.’ The pieces are aimed at people who learned piano for 2-4 years and gave up, because they didn’t like what they were given to play, or had teachers who ‘stripped away the joy of making music.’ You need to be able to read some music in bass and treble clef but no piece has more than 3 flats, or anything too complicated.

There are jazz, classical, electronic and rock influences. Each Etude has a witty written introduction that explains the thinking behind it, and Gonzales smuggles in a lot of theory by just getting you to play (for example, Resolutions per Minute, Glad and Sad, and College Triads deal with cadences, major and minor keys, and harmonies) But these are no dry exercises- even the simplest piece is very beautiful and satisfying.

So, fingers on keys- I was immediately hooked (or bitten?) by the spiky Monk-ish Tarantula and graceful Odessa, both with blue notes and grace notes. ‘Green notes’ are what Gonzales calls whole tone grace notes in the seductive Dressed in Green. There’s the bluesy Aquamarine (‘snake oil’ says Gonzales) and the evocative Climbing and Falling (‘reaching for something you’ll never get’). Satie is a strong influence in the style as well as the asides. I wanted to play them again. And again.

Some pieces recall the drifting melodies of Scandinavian groups like the Tingvall Trio (the pleasing harmonies of Pleading the Fifth and Mansbridge.) Red Thread, Cloches Triste and White Litany feel on the borders of jazz, rock and minimalist classical music, with overtones of Michael Wollny or Neil Cowley. (But much easier to play!)

Elsewhere, Gonzales has recorded electronic dance music, and worked with Daft Punk and (producer) Boys Noize. This style has filtered through into some pieces, like 80’s and Gentlemen, with its finger-dislocating funky left hand groove. Knight Moves is utterly absorbing with its mesmeric repeated phrases. At first it seems impossible to play, but Gonzales explains the fingering in a helpful YouTube tutorial. And for inspiration there’s the CD that accompanies the book, where Gonzales’ exquisite piano technique makes the simplest pieces sound both plangent and delicate. (The more classical Five Spot, Pavane.)

The result: no overnight miracles have been worked in this lapsed pianist, but the pieces are truly engaging, and Gonzales draws you in with his superb writing- and humour. Time for more practice.

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