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Chilly Gonzales and the thrill of piano battles

Pianist Chilly Gonzales is ready for action.

Alexandre Isard

In the 1998 film Legend of 1900, a fictional pianist (charismatically portrayed by Tim Roth) takes on Jelly Roll Morton (a very cool Clarence Williams III) in a piano duel. At one point, believing that one of the men isn't taking the battle seriously, an audience member wonders aloud, "Does he not understand that it's a contest?"

While rappers have long embraced the notion of competition, indie artists and other career musicians tend to see themselves as above the fray, and believe in music as a purely artistic endeavour. Chilly Gonzales, the intriguing Canadian musician and producer, disagrees. "To be ambitious and to openly court people's love is now seen as taboo," he says from his Paris home. "We should all stop pretending, and admit we're all at least a little bit competitive. We can use it for positivity."

Gonzales, born Jason Charles Beck in Montreal, is not an uncorrupted artist, if there even is such a thing.

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As a provocative rapper, determined pop-music challenger and classically trained pianist, the 40-year-old dynamo competes – sometimes, if need be, with himself. "It's not about being cynical," the expat makes clear, speaking about musicians vying for attention and acceptance. "It's about finding what is in you that can touch people."

It wasn't always that way. As a much younger man, he found appeal in the notion of existing in a musical meritocracy: no strategies, no guile. But the laudable instinct did not take hold. "Something was telling me that it would be less satisfying," he explains. "In a perfect world, I would be a pure artist. But it's just not my personality."

Gonzales operates in an interesting world, if not a perfect one. He has just released Solo Piano II, a pop album of elegant instrumental pieces played on the black and white keys. It is a follow-up to the underground icon's most commercially successfully album, 2004's Solo Piano, which featured dreamy Satie-like material.

That album exposed the brashly unorthodox showman – he performs in slippers and pyjamas – to new audiences and possibilities. In between the piano records, he has collaborated with rap star Drake, sold his song Never Stop to Apple for its iPad launch, helped Feist with her latest two LPs, released his own albums of electronic music and orchestral rap, and broken the Guinness World Record for longest solo piano performance, pulling off a marathon concert that endured for 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds.

Perhaps more importantly, his success has allowed him to think of himself, as he puts it, "as a man of my time as a pianist," something he hadn't thought was possible. "I've got hip-hop heads who like Drake coming to my concerts," Gonzales explains, enthused with his new, young fandom. "I've got very, very hot girls in my audience, and the underground hipsters are there as well."

For Gonzales, who addressed the theme of contest vs. art in the concept album and chess film Ivory Tower, the need for validation is nothing to disown. "I am happy to admit that I want people's acceptance," he says. "I am happy to admit that I am working hard in order to please people, to give them what they want."

The game of chess, of course, is a metaphor for the art of piano – moves made on a black-and-white canvas. In the eight years between solo piano records, Gonzales, not surprisingly, has improved his technique, not that the pared-down pop compositions of Solo Piano II show much of it. Instead, he saves his virtuosity for live performances, particularly his piano challenges. The throwdowns (including one at Joe's Pub in New York with Andrew W.K. in 2009) tend to be brash affairs, having as much in common with pro-wrestling matches as they do with Carnegie Hall recitals.

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Still, even with the outcomes of the keyboard clashes predetermined – the narratives involve underhanded shenanigans by the villainous Gonzales – the competition is authentic. "In the moment, you have two entertainers, trying to outdo each another," he says. "I'm sweating bullets, trying to make people think I'm the better piano player."

Because few pianists accept his offers to duel, Gonzales challenged himself in 2009. His record-breaking endurance concert at Ciné 13 Théâtre in Paris was streamed live and was well-tweeted upon.

It's unfortunate that piano battles are rare, given their entertainment possibilities, as anyone who saw those ducks Daffy and Donald go at it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit knows. More legitimately, the recent Face 2 Face arena concerts with Elton John and Billy Joel were wildly popular.

As Gonzales sees it, entertainment and opposition go hand in hand. "I assume those two were harnessing that power of competition to bring out the best in each other. They came from a different time, when competition wasn't as off-limits as it is now."

Given that Joel has long declared himself "the piano man," perhaps it's time for him to be challenged on that status. "I would like nothing more," says Gonzales, relishing the thought of battling the Big Shot singer. "I respect him enough to want to kick his ass."

Chilly Gonzalez plays Pop Montreal, Sept. 22; Toronto's Convocation Hall, Sept. 23; Vancouver's Rio Theatre, Nov. 5; Toronto's Winter Garden, Nov. 8; and Quebec City's Petit Champlain, Nov. 11.

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