ACT ‘ACT II’ (Private Press) 4/5

FINALBen Wendel, tenor sax, melodica, bassoon, Harish Raghavan, bass, and Nate Wood, drums, are collectively ACT, an exciting jazz trio who combine wonderfully on this, their second release. Together they make for a creative force with their gripping, innovative music that wields an effusive, adventurous spirit. The threesome are long-time friends and collaborators, collectively having appeared with Chaka Khan, Greg Osby, Vijay Iyer, Wayne Krantz, Mark Turner and Daedelus. Despite this plethora of outside opportunities, Wendel, Raghavan and Wood continue to feel an enticing lure to perform and record as a stand-alone trio. And I for one am incredibly thankful that this is the case. Wendel explains; “We’ve always had a great time as a trio and this group has always felt like the no pressure/ just for the fun of it project. After we recorded our first album years ago, we always assumed we would document the group again in the future. It’s great to see how things have changed over the years.” The saxophonist goes on to outline how the album was made; “In the dead of winter we stayed in a beautiful home upstate (New York) and recorded/ composed for three days to make this album.” Bassist Raghavan adds; “Recording this cd was a unique experience, going to a random house, not knowing what the space would sound like, writing and arranging and recording in three days. It was crazy, but also inspiring. We’ve played together for almost a decade, and months, even years can pass between gigs, but there’s always a familiarity that’s inspiring.” What they have given us, the listeners, on “ACT II” is a refreshing take on the sax/bass/drums trio format. Invigorating and free-flowing, a general sense of melancholy hangs in the air, with a fresh, crisp winter breeze fuelling excitement and inspired, intelligent performances.

“ACT II” features eight compelling originals, five written by Raghavan and three by Wendel. The key thing here though is that all the tunes are performed with a unity and interplay between the musicians that suggests they all bring an equal presence to the session, the sum of the three creating a multi faceted recording that burns brightly with invention and credibility. Nate Ward’s infectious drumming illuminates many of the tracks, not least the opener “Unforseable” with its power and intensity. Wendel’s melody is raw and untethered, with Raghavan’s bass wonderfully uncompromising in its groove. A perfect example of how richly melodic, yet edgy and unpredictable this trio can be, is heard on one of the best tracks the album has to offer; “Yes You”. Its dark, brooding vigour has a potency that fills the room, forceful, daring and commanding. The music being played is incredible, it seethes with character and bursts with life. Haunting and beautifully somber, “Memorial” employs a stroke of genius with Wendel adding a chordal element to the tune with his clever use of the melodica. Pitched perfectly behind the sax man’s leading lines, the tune radiates an emotional sincerity that is wonderful to hear. “Day and Night” twists the standard “Night and Day” in on itself and dances a dangerous yet riveting path toward the end of what is a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable album. I’m looking forward to “ACT III”. Don’t leave it too long guys.

Mike Gates