Halátnost, the Russian word that literally translates as ‘dressing gown-ness’, has finally found its English, or more accurately Canadian, equivalent. Upon arriving in dressing gown and slippers, Chilly Gonzales practically pirouettes his way through four pieces from his new album ‘Solo Piano II’ straight off the top of the set. Gonzales is somewhat Byronic, as aristocratic as a whiskey glass and roguish as a cigar. He has a knotty quiff of hair that nods backwards and forwards over the keys of his grand piano, ebony and open-topped. He is nonchalant in the extreme.
None of these things are as curious as the fact that Gonzales has listed his gig in the Comedy section. He’s certainly witty, and his pieces sometimes have a comedic element – I would go as far as to say that his minor key settings of popular ditties like ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Frere Jacques’ are very much comic in form. But he is primarily a concert pianist, raconteur and occasional rapper. Music would be the most suitable label, Cabaret more than apt for his blend of rye showmanship and exquisite recital.
His on-stage spiel proves to be as aphoristic as his lyrics. The major key, he tells us, is ‘a fundamentally conservative viewpoint, it says our music is the major’, the supreme and triumphant. ‘If you don’t like today’s rap music, you don’t like today’ he advises us later. They’d seem sloganistic if the music didn’t validate them with so much substance. Gonzales’s music is political not because it tackles many social issues or espouses one fixed philosophy, but because to him the act of making music with that much poise, that much perfection is inherently political. He takes apart his genres, shifting between his black key pieces – frustrating in their tonality, jet-set in their scope – and his conservative major keys.
What seems to fascinate him about hip-hop, whose conservatism he celebrates, is that it offends by reflecting: ‘The free market at its most basic… / Remember when it used to be conscious? / It’s better now. They talk about watches’. His rapping style is slow, inspired by Sage Francis, and at its most impassioned reminiscent of the spoken word sections in early Hold Steady songs. But no one else can quite do what Gonzales does with the genre because no one is so fascinated with its classical lineage that they would, for example, explain mid-gig how sixteenth century ostinato has found its way into twenty-first century hip-hop.
Gonzales is always playing with us, his set full of diversion and gimmick: from the music lesson he gives to an eager heckler, to his party-piece of playing crouched below the piano, his arms periscoping over the keys above him. He is a show-off, diligently prepared and lazily delivered: the very personification of halátnost.