Chilly Gonzales: Piano Talk Show, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
We are living, as prankster rapper and self-proclaimed musical genius Chilly Gonzales reminds us, in a major key kind of time. At the start of a weekend that will see Great Britain jump to third in the Olympic medal table, Gonzales (the alter-ego of Canadian Jason Beck) is delivering a blistering monologue against the historical denigration of the so-called minor key.
The major key, he explains, is the music of monarchies, the music of conservatism. “The major key,” he concludes, adjusting his trademark bathrobe as his crosses his lanky legs, “is essentially right wing.” And then he breaks into a rousing rendition of ‘Chariots of Fire’.
The minor key, meanwhile is the music of minorities. Half-Jewish through his Russian-Polish father, Gonzales elucidates with a Jewish scale, before transposing Vangelis’ Olympic theme into a mournful Eastern European lament by simply sticking it into the minor key. “I think I improved it,” he announces.
A classically trained pianist, Gonzales first musical rebellion was transposing his major key lessons on to the black notes. The career that followed – from jazz virtuoso to soft rocker to rapper, film director and producer to the likes of Feist, Peaches and Mocky – has often seemed like one long revolution.
While he’s had brushes with the big time – notably producing Feist’s albums and writing the tune for the iPad ad – he’s always had something surprising up his sleeve to wrong-foot his fans. He’s beaten Andrew WK in a piano battle, broken a world record for playing non-stop for 27 hours, and made an existential sports comedy film about chess.
Tonight has been listed under comedy in the Fringe guide – and there are plenty of laughs to be had in Gonzales between-song banter – but the main meat of the show reveals his piano maestro side. Later this month, he releases his second Erik Satie-inflected instrumental album, Solo Piano II, so he provides a taster with several solo concertos, including the fantastic ‘White Keys’.
Surrounded by the look-at-me showmen of the Fringe, this is yet another insurgence – ‘I,’ he is telling us, ‘am better than them’.
It certainly throws a few of the audience – during one of his more over-the-top solos, some even walk out – but in the finest moments his manic wordplay and skills on the keys come together. ‘The Grudge’ is utterly sublime, explaining Gonzales’ antagonistic attitude in spat-out rhymes – “See, what I need is enemies, please – a nemesis, or nemeses,” he raps. “They say revenge is just like sashimi – best served cold, so shiver when you see me.”
Like sashimi, Gonzales is an acquired taste and he often seems like he’s trying his hardest to confound success rather than court it. As though mere hits aren’t enough to satisfy him. Don’t be fooled – though contrary, this show is incredibly crafted. His comic timing would put many of the top stand-ups to shame, while his piano skills would be at home on the International Festival. Awkward, subversive and hilarious, he is an oddball genius.
Chilly Gonzales is back at The Queen’s Hall, August 26, 9.45pm, www.thequeenshall.net