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ACT: ACT II

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The spirit of collaboration suffuses Act II, the sophomore release from New York-based trio Act. Five of this album’s eight tracks were written by bassist Harish Raghavan, the other three by tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel; drummer Nate Wood also recorded, mastered and mixed the album. This synergistic approach likewise graces the band’s music, which is mutually cooperative improvisation at its most immediate and captivating.

Raghavan is a study in contrasts, his loose, almost springy playing style wedded to an often melancholy compositional voice. Wendel’s gruffly passionate behind-the-beat attack on “Subway Song” amplifies the plaintive tone of Raghavan’s themes, while on “Bass Song,” the rhythm instrumentalists churn and writhe beneath a husky melody that unexpectedly quotes the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn standard “Time After Time.” The album’s centerpiece, Raghavan’s pensive “Memorial,” finds Wendel backing his own horn on melodica and bassoon, imbuing this slow-crawling lament with forlorn gravity.

Wendel’s compositions are busier, anxious, but not off-puttingly so. These are the tracks where Wood shines brightest. The drummer’s dogged snare-punches fuel the hard-nosed “Unforeseeable,” and on “Yes You” he layers clattery polyrhythmic effects under Raghavan’s rubbery lines. “Day and Night” mixes Wendel’s whining melodica with a pliant, almost hip-hop-style Raghavan rhythm, with some jaunty handclaps thrown in for extra color.

From beginning to end, the musical spotlight is shared among the trio. Wendel does improvise at length, but it somehow never feels like “soloing.” One could just as easily tune him out, focus on only Raghavan or Wood, and find ample rewards. This egalitarian flavor is enhanced by Wood’s recording approach, the mix granting none of the three performers overly preferential sonic treatment. It took six years for Act to follow up its 2009 self-titled debut. Here’s hoping it won’t take another half-dozen to hear from this exciting collective again.

Originally Published