Iajhi Hampden is on the road, driving through New Jersey and talking on his cell phone, pausing every few minutes to lean out of the window and pay a toll. "Thank you," he says every time.
His father is riding shotgun, and they're on their way home to North Carolina from New York. Last night, Iajhi rubbed elbows with some heroes: Jay-Z, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, Yoko Ono. Iajhi's dad, Ivan, is an in-demand session drummer who has spent the better part of two decades between New York and Los Angeles, playing on records by Diana Ross and Beyoncé and touring with Luther Vandross. Last night, Ivan was the musical director for the New York chapter of The Recording Academys house band. They played a medley of songs from Mariah Carey, one recipient of the organizations 2005 Recording Academy Honors, along with Ono and John Lennon, Jay-Z and Howard Shore.
Iajhi is a drummer, too. In fact, Iajhi and Ivan now split duties in the Chris Boerner Quartet, a Raleigh jazz band blending bop traditions with the acid jazz of Melvin Sparks, the guitar frontiersman essence of Jimi Hendrix and the rock 'n' roll wide-open-windows attitude of Led Zeppelin. This is the first band they've ever traded off time behind the skins, and it sort of happened just because it had to.
"Dad lives right outside of Raleigh in Clayton, and we would go to Slim's because it was a musician's hang. Naturally, me and my dad, being musicians, felt right at home," says Iajhi, who spent the summer of 2004 playing as a trio with Boerner and bassist Nic Slaton at Slim's before finishing his master's degree in jazz at Northern Illinois University.
When he left for school, Ivan--who had heard all of the material that summer--stepped in and finished the Tuesday night Slim's residency. He did it, in part, to help his son's band, but he did it for the music. Traveling south on I-95, Ivan is raising his voice to make sure his words make it through his son's cell phone. It's obvious that he's as passionate about this band as his son is, which may explain why a marquee session drummer plays on five of the nine tracks from a local jazz band's debut album, Incoming. Of course, between Slaton, Boerner, the Hampdens and alto saxophonist Matt Douglas, there's plenty of passion for the taking. They all rave about each other.
"Oh, he makes me play better. There are two kinds of people making music," says Slaton, 26, who has been playing with Boerner since he was a sophomore at Broughton High School. "Some get to a certain level and they're satisfied, and there are people that continue to grow and their lifetime goal is to obtain more ways to express musically what they hear inside their head."
Slaton says that Boerner, the quartet's songwriter, is on a quest, despite the connotations that such an overused expression conjures. He insists that Boerner was good enough as a guitar player for most people years ago, but that Boerner holds himself to an inestimably high standard. Boerner confesses to being a perfectionist and that he's always searching for that next piece of his sound. He'll try any guitar effect at least once, but, today sitting in The Third Place on Glenwood Ave. in Raleigh, he's raving about his Electro-Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generator, a guitar pedal capable of rendering lavish organ sounds by embellishing an entire chord with three extra octaves.
"I heard about the POG, and I knew I had to have one. That's the thing that's always bothered me about octave pedals. When you play jazz chords with all of these extensions on one, it freaks out. But not the POG," says Boerner, speaking about his gear with busy hands and wide eyes. "I mean, I can do it with a MIDI processor, but that's basically playing something that activates a keyboard sound in my computer. It just doesn't have that real guitar sound."
Boerner acts the same way when talking about his bandmates. He gushes about Slaton's ability to treat a bassline like a subset of the melody, something like a post-funk Charlie Haden not obsessed with only keeping the roots buried and the song walking along.
"We kind of converted him in high school. He was in the high school jazz band, but he was listening to lots of alternative rock, Pearl Jam, that stuff," says Boerner, who chose baseball over jazz band in high school and who admits that he started playing guitar because he was jealous of a neighbor who could play "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "We played a lot of Zeppelin and Allman Brothers and Dead, and he was open-minded."
After high school, Boerner went to Duke to major in physics, but he quickly decided music was the only thing that piqued his interest as a career. He changed his major and devoted himself to guitar--no band to speak of, just his classical and electric guitars, practicing up to eight hours each day.
Slaton and Iajhi met at a rehearsal studio in Raleigh, and they clicked spontaneously at an open blues jam later that night. Boerner met Iajhi at a concert in 2001 at N.C. Central. The trio started joining a jazz open mic at Henry's Bistro on Rosemary Street led by bassist Matt Brandau. They met Dana Chell at what Iajahi dubs "The Bistro Sessions," and he joined The Mighty Burners, the first Hampden/Slaton/Boerner project. They released the excellent Hot Ones Now and split when Hampden left for school, but the trio kept pressing on. Ivan stepped in for Iajhi, and--last December, with Iajhi home from Chicago and Douglas back from Budapest--Boerner paid for three days with Ian Schreier at Overdub Lane in Durham. He is already talking about how the next one will be different, but Boerner's happy with the result.
"The spirit of this group is the best I've made music with so far. The spirit of this group is very impassioned, and it's about impact and interaction and energy," Boerner says.
They seem committed, too. Slaton and Boerner also back Douglas in his songwriting project, Matty Bones & The Proclivites. Slaton graduates from N.C. Central in February, and he's excited to have more time for band work.
As for ambitions, Boerner, of course, wants to continue with this outfit. He recognizes that this isn't jam-based dance jazz, and he doesn't expect to pack clubs like the band he's been touring with, the Michael Jackson tribute Who's Bad? But he's unapologetic about the tunes he plays, and he maintains that one of his chief quests is to develop guitar sounds that people have never heard.
"This is what comes out when I write music," explains Boerner, who fesses that he doubts this music will pack rock or dance clubs. "I can't make any excuses for that."
Well, they're all on the road.
Chris Boerner Quartet's CD release party for Incoming is Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. Tickets are $6-8.