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Art Tatum to Aphex Twin: Chilly Gonzales's 10 essential piano works

Robert Rowat

There is no Venn diagram that could adequately represent the confluence of styles making up Chilly Gonzales's unique brand of piano music. When he plays his own subtle, wistful solo piano compositions — the keyboard projected on a giant screen above the stage, the audience transfixed — he brings not only technical and interpretive skill, but also wide-ranging experience as a rapper, songwriter, producer, entertainer and man of musical theatre. There's nobody like him.

Reflecting on his own music education, Gonzales says music theory was his best subject. "I became obsessed with how harmony works," he wrote to CBC Music via email from his home in Germany. "The rules of music are unbreakable and one has to learn how to bend them."

Post-modernist, self-styled musical genius and iconoclast, Gonzales also bends the rules of the concert hall, performing in a silk robe and slippers and talking to the audience. In subverting the solo piano concert experience, he has also become one of its leading 21st-century crusaders.

Curious about his personal taste in piano music, we asked Gonzales for 10 piano works everyone should know. His idiosyncratic choices did not disappoint, and are outlined in the list below.

1. 'To a Sea Horse' by Moondog

This falls through the cracks of any genre you might name. 

2. Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 76, No. 7, by Johannes Brahms, played by Glenn Gould

Gould rarely played the Romantics but he should have more often.

3. 'Song of the Vagabonds' played by Art Tatum

I always imagine Ravel, Debussy and the rest hearing this for the first time and the way it must have changed everything.

4. 'Avril 14th' by Aphex Twin

Wish I wrote this. Sometimes I think I did!

5. The Köln Concert, Keith Jarrett

An obvious choice but still underrated. This improvisation is better than any living composer's entire output.

(Sample the album on iTunes.)

6. Prelude No. 3 by George Gershwin

You just can't improve on this version by the composer himself.

Editor's note: That version isn't viewable in Canada, but this lovely version from Krystian Zimerman is a good substitute (starts at 4:55).

7. Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26, (i), by Sergei Prokofiev, played by Michel Béroff and the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur

This opening movement hit me like a thunderbolt and made me figure out its harmonies, which I'm still doing. Like all great music, I hear something new in it every time.

(Sample the album on iTunes.)

8. 'Essene Hymn' by Thomas de Hartmann and George Gurdjieff

A transcription of a song played on harmonium, with classical aesthetics superimposed.

(Sample "Essene Hymn" on iTunes.)

9. Barcarolle, Op. 65, No. 6, by Charles-Valentin Alkan

I like to play this one but I've never found a good recording, all too plinky.

(Editor's note: Plinky or not, here's an excellent performance by Marc-André Hamelin.)

10. You, improvising

At the risk of being cheesy, there is no greater feeling than coming up with your own music that seems to express some emotion or idea that you couldn't or wouldn't put into words.