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Piano man: Chilly Gonzales gets serious about being goofy

Chilly Gonzales plays the piano at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto on Monday, April 20, 2015.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Track nine of Chambers, the engrossing new album from the rapping, piano-shredding pop chameleon Chilly Gonzales, is called The Difference. It's dedicated to "musicians everywhere," and is accompanied in the liner notes by this provocation:

"There are many musicians out there in the world today. Some of them frauds, others merely mediocre, and a scant few worthy of listening. Can YOU tell the difference?"

And just who are those frauds? Well, they're not the teenage pop starlets and "manufactured" boy bands so often derided by fogeys, young and old. As Gonzales (more on that name in a minute) explained recently via Skype from his home in Cologne, "for me, a fraud is a musician who takes an easy road, when we all know that the most exciting thing in music is when someone creates their own lane."

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Among his pantheon of non-frauds: Glenn Gould, Nina Simone and John McEnroe, tennis's great eccentric, as well as friends and collaborators like Feist, Daft Punk and Drake.

"Just imagine if Drake had decided to not create his own lane, and decided to copy an existing rapper type? We wouldn't have this new thing that he invented."

We wouldn't have The 6?

"We wouldn't have The 6! That's what I'm saying!"

By this standard, no one could possibly consider Chilly Gonzales a fraud.

Chilly Gonzales started off life as Jason Beck. As a teen growing up in Toronto, he remembers falling in love with music while channelling Chopin at his piano lessons – and then going home and watching the 1980s unfold on MuchMusic.

"The minute I was out of the lesson, it was kind of like, 'Ok, how can I apply this now to learning to play Say You, Say Me or Against All Odds on the piano?'" he said. "Already I sensed I wanted to be part of what I saw on TV, and had these pop fantasies. I wanted to be Morrissey. I wanted to dance on the ceiling."

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After a hybrid degree in composition and jazz piano at McGill University, he fronted the alt-rock band Son, which despite early buzz, was dropped from its contract with Warner Music when two albums failed to launch commercially.

Disillusioned with the music biz, Beck fled Canada in 1999 for the artistic refuge of Berlin, and reinvented himself as… well, it's a little hard to say. He assumed the persona of Chilly Gonzales, a megalomanical "musical super-villain" whose early output careened between pun-drenched rap and loungy electro-pop.

"I wanted to approach my career as a rapper would," he said. "Rappers were nasty and nice, all at the same time. They were superficial and deep all at the same time." And they could pretty much do whatever they wanted, music labels be damned. Anoint himself a "musical genius"? Sure! Release white-dude rap records that explore the hair-thin line between facetious, self-mocking wordplay and dad jokes? Why not! And the name itself? Thanks to a rather prominent nose, he'd long been known as Gonzo, after the Muppet. From there, it was only a short hop, by way of the Fastest Mouse in all Mexico, to Chilly Gonzales. Nowadays, he usually introduces himself to new people as Jason, although plenty of his musical collaborators still use Gonzo. Just don't call him Chilly. "It feels strangely formal actually when someone goes, 'Hello, Chilly!' I'm like, 'Who's Chilly?'"

Chilly Gonzales is a pretty great name for a musical dilettante, but it's less useful when you try to bring that dilettante back into classical concert halls.

His new album, Chambers, follows a path he's been charting since 2004's Solo Piano, a beguiling suite of sort-of-classical, sort-of-jazz pieces that connected with an unexpectedly wide audience (Solo Piano is still his top-selling album). Among its fans are Drake, who more-or-less pilfered one piece wholesale for his 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. Gonzales followed it up with 2012's Solo Piano II and 2014's Re-Introduction Etudes, a book of 24 tunes with accompanying lessons designed to lure adults back to the keyboards they abandoned as kids. And this spring, the Royal Conservatory of Music included one of his Solo Piano pieces in its grade nine repertoire book.

(Gonzo being Gonzo, during this period he also released, among other things, a symphonic-rap album, with arrangements by his brother Christophe Beck, a film composer; an '80s soft-pop throwback record; a soundtrack to a film he co-wrote and starred in about "Jazz Chess"; and a four-disc box set documenting his attempt, successful but short-lived, at the Guinness World Record for longest concert by a solo artist.)

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His success as a pop piano master has allowed him to take on the mantle of musical elder statesman, sharing his harmonic wisdom with fellow non-frauds and commoners alike. He collaborated on Drake's 2013 hit record Nothing Was the Same and co-wrote a song with Pulp's Jarvis Cocker for the Get Him to the Greek soundtrack. (He's now working on a longer project with Cocker, a concept album about the latter's Hollywood obsessions). He also contributed the piano playing on Within, the track that shepherds Daft Punk's Grammy-winning Random Access Memories from A to B-flat minor (when you need the perfect modulation, you hire Gonzo).

A recent series of popular YouTube videos for a German radio network finds Gonzales seated at a piano in a darkened, empty hall. After a short flourish at the keyboard that sounds suspiciously like Hotel California, he introduces himself as "Chilly Gonzales, the Musical Genius," and the Pop Music Masterclass begins. It's like a funhouse-mirror of those hoary old classical music appreciation classes, with Gonzo patiently explaining the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic logic behind pop tunes like Taylor Swift's Shake it Off and Iggy Azalea's Fancy, then going on a pianistic flight of fancy based on that tune. Like so much of his unlikely schtick, it works amazingly well. (Beware, though, the Chilly Gonzales YouTube rabbit hole; it's deep, fascinating and seemingly endless.)

There's often something faintly embarrassing about pop musicians' attempts at Serious Classical Music (one thinks of Paul McCartney's 1991 Liverpool Oratorio, described by one reviewer as "a sprawling, mawkish and, to this taste, excruciatingly embarrassing, 90-minute exercise of the ego").

Chambers, on which Gonzales is joined by Hamburg's Kaiser Quartett, does not belong to that particular tradition. Instead of trafficking in grand statements, it's a collection of little musical gems, 12 short pieces for piano quintet that work through two or three musical ideas before bowing out gracefully shortly after the three-minute mark. It's not pop, exactly, but the music certainly couldn't have appeared on 19th-century music stands either.

The album begins with Prelude to a Feud, a nod to (and pun on) Bach's preludes and fugues. Evoking the crystalline synth arpeggios of Daft Punk – and showing off Gonzo's chops–the piece sets up an opposition between today's rhythmically perfect electronic music and the earlier traditions that Chambers recalls.

On Sweet Burden, the album's most beautiful track (and one of the few without a punny title), a sad little piano melody gets taken up in turn by a plaintive viola and a soulful cello, as Gonzales spins little curlicues around them with his right hand. After working through the searching melody a few times, and picking up intensity along the way, it takes a sudden shift at the end, finishing with swelling of strings on a hopeful B-flat major.

Getting kids these days to embrace solo piano music is one thing. But chamber music? It's hard to think of any sort of classical form that has less contemporary currency than the piano quintet (that's two violins, a viola, a cello and a piano). Of course, that's not how Gonzo sees it.

"I do think the pop culture landscape today, musically speaking, is closest to chamber music," he said. "A symphony orchestra does not speak to me. An opera does not speak to me. But you put a pianist and a string quartet there, and suddenly it starts to feel like Neil Young and Crazy Horse in some way."

Earlier this week, Gonzales (dressed in a burgundy bathrobe and Ugg slippers) and his affable band of German string players (tuxes) took the stage before an adoring crowd at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall in Toronto. Gonzales attacked the piano, flailing his arms and stomping his feet, his mop of curly hair whipping toward the keys like a Muppet's. At one point, he pulled out a pair of bongos and proceded to ham it up like an old-time vaudeville entertainer, making strings of corny jokes about LVB (Ludwig van Beethoven, natch). All this interspersed with moments of astonishing beauty, as the quintet made its way around his vast, motley repertoire.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a string quintet? Sure, why not.

A funny thing has started to happen to Chilly Gonzales. The consummate musical prankster, who left classical music in his youth and saddled himself with a you-can't-be-serious stage name, has been fielding calls from real-deal classical virtuosos, asking him to write encores for their recitals.

"That's the dopest spot to be," he said, envisioning his miniatures appearing at the end of a long evening of classical works. "People are going to leave the theatre humming my song – if I do my job."

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