You've got to admire people with drive. Still only 22 years old, British drummer Jon Opstad has emerged in the space of a few years as a drummer, bandleader, producer and owner of his own label, New Canvas Records. New Canvas' first release was his own debut, last year's Still Picture
reflecting Opstad's interest in Norwegian music in general, and the German ECM label in particular. From his quintet's unhurried approach to developing Opstad's impressionistic compositions to the austere artwork, the influences were clear. But given the usual characteristic brashness of youth, Opstad's patience, economy of style, and attention to building a group sound were refreshing.
For the label's second release Opstad takes an altered role as producer and percussionist on South African pianist Nishlyn Ramanna's debut. Much of Ramanna's writing for A Thought comes from his tenure in the 1990s South African group Mosaica quintet that featured flute, piano, guitar, bass, and tabla. Here, however, his eight compositions receive a sparer treatment that makes A Thought a different record from Still Picture to be sure, but one that nevertheless builds on its predecessor's stylistic aesthetic.
Back from Still Picture is Jon's seventeen year-old brother James on fretless bass. He still evokes images of '70s Eberhard Weber, notably on "The Beautiful Room is Empty, which, despite its Latin leanings, manages to feel like a restrained version of Weber's Colours band. Throughout the disc he demonstrates an ability to create firm, harmonically anchored bass lines that also skirt the edges of counterpoint.
Raising the visibility of A Thought a notchespecially on the British sceneOpstad has recruited Stan Sulzmann, a well-known saxophonist/flautist who's been a hand-in-glove fit for trumpet legend Kenny Wheeler's melancholy style on records spanning over three decades. He has a remarkable ability to inject hints of unpredictability into relatively straightforward pieces like "Hymn to Him without tarnishing their lyrical innocence.
Ramanna's writing tends to simpler forms. But the payoff from playing with a sympathetic group that knows how to let it breathe is that his songs become gently compelling. The lengthy opener, "Quintessentially, is the most ECM-like tune of the disc, harkening back to albums including the Jan Garbarek/Art Lande duet record Red Lanta and the Arcade-era John Abercrombie Quartet. Ramanna's solo style makes great use of subtle suggestion and the development of slowly cascading lines that are strangely visceral, but in a gentle way. Opstad continues to approach the kit from a similar angle as Jon Christensen, where pulses are often impliedalthough at times he locks in more firmly with brother James than on Still Picture.
A sense of European impressionism imbues the majority of A Thought, except for its closer, the lightly swinging "Oatlands Road Blues. This piece shows another aspect to Ramanna, but unfortunately it alters the more consistent ambience of the rest of the disc. Still, on the whole, A Thought's understated elegance is a fine introduction to Nishlyn Ramanna, and confirmation that Jon Opstad's musical instincts are already bearing more fruit.
Personnel: Nishlyn Ramanna: piano; Stan Sulzmann: tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute; James Opstad: fretless bass; Jon Opstad: drums, percussion.