NPR logo Judging By The Cover: Brad Mehldau & Matt Chamberlain Go Grunge

Judging By The Cover: Brad Mehldau & Matt Chamberlain Go Grunge

Brad Mehldau

Brad Mehldau, in performance at Tokyo's Suntory Hall. Courtesy of the artist.

Anyone familiar with Brad Mehldau knows the pianist is tops when it comes to covering rock songs. Since he first tackled "Exit Music (For a Film)," Mehldau has reworked number of Radiohead songs, including a stunning 20-minute solo rendition of "Paranoid Android" on his Live In Tokyo album that would make even classical pianist Christopher O'Riley feel a bit unworthy. Throughout his catalog, Mehldau has also played tunes by Paul Simon, Oasis, Nick Drake, Sufjan Stevens and even a stunning medley of Jobim's "Wave" and The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" on his incredibly underrated, Jon Brion-produced album Largo.

But last Friday, Mehldau took his love of covers to an inspired extreme. As part of SFJazz's spring season, the pianist performed a one-off concert with session drummer extraordinaire Matt Chamberlain in San Francisco. It was their first live performance together as a duo, and they came up with something special. After taking the stage, Mehldau said they would play "the music of Seattle," launching into Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Over the course of the set, the two played covers by the likes of grunge-era bands Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.* According to a good friend who was actually there that night, there was not a person in attendance who wasn't grinning throughout their 15-minute version of Stone Temple Pilots' "Interstate Love Song."

[*Coincidentally Chamberlain played drums in an early incarnation of that band — you can see him playing drums in the video for "Alive".]

The best cover songs can do two things: they can introduce you to songs or artists you've never heard, and they can make you hear songs you know under a new light. The latter applies here. Even though I've heard "Jeremy" or "Lithium" or "Spoonman" a million times, this is the music I grew up with; it was the first music that I fully embraced as my own that wasn't my parents', and it still resonates with me to this day. Hearing about a concert like this makes me want to give them a fresh listen.

I tried finding music from that night on YouTube, but was unsuccessful — I'm hoping a live album is in the works. Instead, take a listen to this (three-part) version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun," as performed by the Brad Mehldau Trio (featuring Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums):