ACT is Ben Wendel on sax (plus bassoon and melodica), Harish Raghavan on bass, and Nate Wood on drums. Their sophomore album, ACT II, consists of five originals from Raghavan and three from Wendel, and is a fantastic listen with strong melodies from Wendel and a rock-solid backbone from Raghavan and Wood.

Out of the gate, the album opens with “Unforeseeable”, a tune from Wendel in 5/4 with a descending melody from the sax. This tune was originally conceived as part of Wendel’s The Seasons project (check the most recent installment with Mark Turner here), but was arranged here for sax, drums, and bass. The trio sets up a solid rhythm with Wood’s drums more than holding down the tune’s backbone while also providing enough rhythmic variation to keep it interesting. Throughout the album, Wood and Raghavan are linked together in lock-step – always a necessary thing, but even more so in this chordless trio.

The next tune is here titled “Bass Song”, an original from Raghavan. This song appeared previously as “Raghavan” on Eric Harland’s Vipassana album with a similar arrangement. The difference here, of course, is that Ben Wendel’s sax is covering a lot of melodic ground that was shared amongst guitar, piano, and sax on the version from Vipassana. Wendel handles that without any problem in this setting, and it is nice to hear Raghavan’s bass up a bit higher in the mix in this trio recording. The tune builds to a great drum spotlight for Nate Wood.

Another highlight is Wendel’s “Yes You”, a tune that he has been playing with Kneebody. Here, the tune serves as a percussion showpiece, with Wood’s drums setting up what seems to be a relatively straightforward groove, then filling in the rhythmic spaces with surprising accents on the off-beats. Fantastic stuff.

Two tunes on the album feature some apparent overdubbing (or some otherworldly playing from Wendel), to truly great effect. Raghavan’s “Memorial” is superb. Wendel’s sax line takes the melody, and his bassoon is overdubbed to act very much like a keyboard synth, despite the trio being chordless. The tune includes Raghavan’s only bass solo on the album, which he also uses to its full potential with a great melodic solo. There are also some sax lines that appear to be overdubbed and made to sound distant, adding a nice layer to the tune’s arrangement. Truly a fantastic tune and performance.

The other tune with overdubbed lines is “Day and Night”, from Ben Wendel. This tune is yet another winner from this trio, with a groove from Raghavan and Wood that could go on forever (a nice touch as the last tune on the album – they definitely leave you wanting more). The drum and bass backbone is augmented with some handclaps and a chord or two from a melodica while Wendel’s sax floats on top.

Overall, ACT II is a great listen from start to finish. The album has eight tracks, none terribly long, sounds great courtesy of Nate Wood’s recording, mixing, and mastering, and has great playing. This is the second album from the trio that seems to get together irregularly and somewhat casually to put together tremendously good albums. Here’s to hoping that ACT III is in the offing somewhere.

ACT II, the latest album from Ben Wendel, Harish Raghavan, and Nate Wood is out now. You can buy it at CDBaby.