Refueled and Ready For Liftoff: Booster’s Front Range Funk/Fusion Sound Rises to a New Level

By: Will Baumgartner

Boulder-based “funk/fusion/rocket fuel” quartet Booster have been one of my favorite local groups for awhile. I first caught them at The Lazy Dog in early 2015, drawn by curiosity and loyalty to old friends who had also been my musical cohorts (bassist Alex Vouri and drummer Mike Lehman had both played in The Pamlico Sound with me). What I heard at that first show was satisfying and exciting beyond anything I could have expected: the duo, with their first keyboardist Aaron Pettine (now of Envy Alo, who we last covered for BolderBeat here), were simply on fire with funky/jazzy compositions, infectious energy, and top-level musicianship. When trumpeter Les Miller joined a couple of months later, it was like their rocket ship had burst through a whole new level of space, breaking some unknown sound barrier, and I went from ardent supporter to rabid fan of the band. I wanted more; all I could get of Booster’s sounds. Then, toward the end of 2015, Pettine announced that he would be leaving the group to focus on Envy Alo, and I was (as I’m sure other fans were too) greatly disheartened. Alex Vouri told me they were going to get someone new in on keys, but I wondered how anyone could fill Aaron’s shoes. Still, I told myself to just wait and see.

As it turned out, all I needed was a little patience and faith: Booster are about to do their first show with new keyboardist Evan Morris, and as Alex said to me in a conversation a little while back, “this guy is straight fire”. There’s nothing like taking an already great band and bringing in some new blood and creativity. And so, on the eve of a new dawn for the exploratory vehicle known as Booster, I was more than excited to have a conversation with Alex Vouri and Les Miller about what the group’s been up to and what to expect from the band next:

I’ve been a Booster fan since the beginning, which wasn’t all that long ago, and have seen you grow and change a lot in a short time. What were the circumstances of the group’s formation, and how have things changed since then?

Alex: Well, it started as most groups do- I wanted to form a group to perform instrumental music that would be equally fun to listen or dance to; good for the brain and the booty, ya know? So I called up our drummer Mike Lehman, we jammed a few times just the two of us, and then we started bringing in players we knew and already had chemistry with. Mike brought Aaron in on keys and after a few shows, we felt we could really use some solid top end melodic focus, so we brought Les Miller in on trumpet.

Alex Vouri of Booster. 

Alex Vouri of Booster. 

For your first year or so, your keyboardist was Aaron Pettine, and I know y’all loved working with him. Now that your lineup has changed, you seem super excited about new keys player Evan Morris. How has bringing him into the band affected your overall scenario?

Alex: Evan is a monster player, and a perfect fit for Booster. His phrasing and voicings really open up the tonal pallet when we improvise, which allows us to be more harmonically complex, and at the same time, a little looser in feel since there are so many paths to choose from. He really dropped right in chemistry-wise, and it feels as if he’s always been here! He’s a good guy too, which is always nice.

One of the most interesting and impressive things about this band is the way each instrument- bass, drums, trumpet, and keys- feels like a lead instrument, yet fits into an organic sound. Do you all take active roles in composing?

Alex: Being a quartet without vocals or a familiar focal point is deliberate; we’re very much a traditional jazz quartet lineup of horn, keys, bass, and drums. We want to spread the focus evenly across the band, allowing each player to feel fulfilled and invested. In a band of such great players, it’s pretty easy to do! In terms of working up material, it’s definitely a group effort. Sometimes someone will have a pretty specific arrangement for a tune and sometimes not, but everyone is typically in charge of their part or contribution: we don’t micro-manage each other’s playing.

Les Miller of Booster.

Les Miller of Booster.

I hear echoes of a lot of familiar sounds and styles within the Booster sound: Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis come to mind, but I’m sure there must be many influences at work here. Who have some of your main influences been, both compositionally and in your individual styles as players?

Alex: Herbie and Miles are right on for sure, I also really love Jaco Pastorius, Grant Green, Christian McBride; all the greats. Weather Report is a big influence for me in terms of instrumental quartets, and Critters Buggin too. They’re one of my all-time faves in terms of chops and pure originality.

Les: My main influences improvisationally are Lee Morgan, Maceo Parker, Jerry Garcia, & as you mentioned, Miles Davis. I really enjoy the 1968-69 output of Miles, and I think albums such as Miles in the Sky, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and of course Bitches Brew have influenced Booster’s sonic direction. It’s interesting to note that the keyboard player on those albums is the other player mentioned in your question, Herbie Hancock.

Mike Lehman of Booster. 

Mike Lehman of Booster. 

Your music is richly rewarding on both an intellectual level and a visceral one: musicians get plenty to appreciate in terms of skill and complexity, while your average concertgoer gets a solid dose of dance music. Has this been a conscious thing? How do you approach creating music like this?

Alex: Yeah, that’s always a goal for me personally. It’s good for everyone at a show. It’s important as a player to be interested and invested in what you’re doing, while at the same time not becoming totally self-gratifying, and alienating your listeners, which can happen in a chops-heavy improvisational band.

Les: I’ve wanted a band like this for a long time, one that combines in-the-pocket groove playing of funk music (making it eminently danceable), the harmonic complexity of jazz & Western romantic traditions, and the rich, constantly expanding sonic palette available to musicians today.

You’re an entirely instrumental band, but since you’re also clearly a band that keeps expanding its concepts moving restlessly forward, I’m curious: Have you considered adding vocals at any point in the future?

Les: No plans for a permanent vocalist, but we have some guest vocalist ideas brewing.  And I’ve been known to drop a mean 16 on very rare occasions.

You began as a trio, with drums bass and keys, then added trumpet. Any chance of the group expanding beyond its current quartet form? And if so, what other instruments might you bring in?

Alex: I think we’ve struck an ideal balance for ourselves instrumentally. We all have just enough room, but we do love having folks sit in with us, that’s always a good time.

Les: I’m very happy with our current lineup. That being said, I have a long history of playing in horn sections with a sax player, so if Skerik wanted to join the band, I think we’d become a quintet pretty quickly.

Ha! Who wouldn’t say yes to Skerik (legendary saxophonist of Garage a Trois etc.) joining their funk fusion group? So… If Skerik came asking what y’all were like, what would you say? What’s your vision? Can you give our readers a capsule version of the “Booster Manifesto”?

Alex: We’re a band in which each player is free to do whatever they want. No limits, no preconceptions, no particular concrete goal or genre is in mind. We’re not trying to corner a market, we all just really love to make music we’re proud of, and want to grow as players and artists together, while putting on a good show of course! But in terms of a description? Funky, high energy, jazzy, adventurous… it’s always changing.

I’m very excited for your performances this week, starting tonight at Boulder’s Southern Sun followed by this Saturday’s Vine Street show in Denver. Can we expect any special treats at these gigs?

Alex: Yeah! The unveiling of Booster 2.0! Our sound has really changed, and we’re excited to share that with people. We’re very invigorated right now. We’ll have a lot of new tunes, and probably some special guests!

What’s on the horizon for Booster? Anything our readers should know about in advance, or would you rather milk the mystery?

Les: After this week, we have a show lined up at The Fox this fall, and are planning dates in Denver, Fort Collins, and all around the Front Range. We are excited to share the new tunes being forged in our rehearsal space, “The Launchpad”, and we can guarantee song breakouts at every show over the next few months! We play mostly original music, but will continue the tradition of surprising the crowd with a cover medley occasionally. In fact, I’m arranging two new ones right now. I won’t reveal both, but I will say that it is a nearly impossible task to choose just two or three favorite Steely Dan tunes, and we will probably invite our fans to choose an artist they’d like to hear us perform in the near future.

Make sure to check out the re-formed and re-charged Booster tonight at Southern Sun, and this Saturday at Vine Street Pub in Denver. Get the details on both events on Booster’s Facebook; keep up with the band on their website here.

-Will

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured, No Coast, and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.