Colter Harper's guitar bridges the gap between a few subsets of the local music scene.
As a student of local guitarists Joe Negri and Jimmy Ponder, Harper developed a strong jazz vocabulary — which has led to a duo with vocalist Carolyn Perteete, and gigs backing Phat Man Dee, among others. He serves as one of the curators of Space Exchange, the Tuesday-night event at the Thunderbird Café where participants range from free-jazz practitioners to singer-songwriters. Harper has also been a member of Rusted Root for the last five years, appearing on its Stereo Rodeo album and an upcoming release.
Now, as he takes his turn in the spotlight, it comes as no surprise that Harper draws on each of these styles. Songs from the War Streets, his new EP, is grounded in his love of unique songwriters.
"I've always loved the great songwriters of late '60s, early '70s: everyone from Nick Drake to Bob Marley to Leonard Cohen to Sly & the Family Stone," Harper says. "One of my favorite eras for music is 1968 to 1976. There was such incredible music happening, and such incredible records being made."
Steady touring with Rusted Root helps spark his creativity during the down time. The EP's opener, "She Means Nothing," came to him as the tour bus was rolling. "I woke up one morning with that song in my head," he says. "I was about to go back to sleep, and I knew if I didn't force myself to get up and write the melody, chords and lyrics, it would be gone." The end result not only bears some Nick Drake influences, but includes a deceptive melodic turn that keeps the jazz influence close at hand. When he covers Drake's "River Man," meanwhile, Harper adds some percussion and pedal steel that puts a groove to a choppy rhythm.
Harper's skill at rhythmic texture comes from his travels in West Africa and Brazil, where he studied music, eventually earning a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh.
"I try to play guitar like a percussionist or play percussion like a guitarist," he says. "All those things fit into the language you speak when you're playing the instrument. So there's a language to traditional jazz which is very linear. Then there's a language to music from Brazil and Africa, which is very cyclical. I try to bring that language into pop music, and into whatever kind of jazz stuff I do as well."
Harper plans to record a set of songs built from African grooves, eventually pairing it with the seven tracks on Songs for a full-length release. And while there are plenty of musicians who might dabble in different genres, Harper won't ever be mistaken for a dilettante.
"This is the stuff that just happens to be in my head," he says. "I don't have a choice whether to write it or not write it."