[This article has been amended.]
A quick spin through the catalog of Durham hip-hop band The Beast should suggest a larger ensemble than the tight, tenacious quartet that throws down regularly on local stages. From the horn blasts of the 2009 debut Silence Fiction and the revised jazz staples of 2010's Freedom Suite to the army of guest vocalists on last year's Guru Legacy tribute, The Beast—at least, as it appears on record—is an adaptable, inclusive creature. While satisfying in its own right, the band's live show rarely approaches the scope of their recorded output.
"Our jazz brand is our strongest brand," says Beast rapper Pierce Freelon, nursing a sore throat on the sunny patio outside Durham's Guglhupf Bakery. "As a hip-hop band in particular, it's the thing that distinguishes us the most from contexts in which you probably see an emcee. A lot of times you'll see a band backing an emcee where they're basically replaying some of his industry beats. You don't typically see jazz bands with an emcee so infused into the process."
The Beast gets by minimally: The muscular rhythm section of Stephen Coffman and Peter Kimosh hold down irrepressible grooves, while overachieving keyboardist Eric Hirsh provides an array of effects and the occasional vocoder hook. Still, when they were asked to play a date at this year's edition of Music in the Gardens, the summer series presented by Duke Performances, they thought bigger.
"It's just something that's so well-curated and well-presented and with such high production values that if we were going to do it, we were going to want it to be something special," Hirsh explains of the series. "You don't just want to show up and play a few songs and leave. This kind of became an opportunity: 'What if we did a Beast orchestra?'"
Assembling what Hirsh calls a "dream team" of local musicians, The Beast will take the Gardens stage as a 12-piece, fleshing out their sound with horns, strings and additional percussion. Armed with a dozen compositions rearranged for the sonic surplus, this one-off performance reconfigures The Beast from its foundation forward.
The Beast sat down with the Independent to discuss the musicians they chose for their enlarged ensemble.
Respected as both a jazz improviser and a session player, Durham trumpeter Al Strong is an adjunct professor at N.C. Central University. He's notable for his involvement in The Art of Cool Project, a jazz initiative in the Triangle that produces concerts to build local interest. He plays trumpet in Orquesta GarDel, the 13-member Latin jazz ensemble co-directed by Hirsh. He also plays alongside Coffman in Peter Lamb and the Wolves.
"He's just kind of a Durham mainstay as far as being a trumpet player of our generation," Hirsh says. "He has also produced and arranged on R&B and other kinds of hip-hop projects, so he's got all the right ingredients to be part of something that's like a jazzy hip-hop orchestration project."
Explains Kimosh, "He adds like a level of grease to everything. It feels so good when he's involved."
One of The Beast's longstanding collaborators, Tim Smith has guested with the group at Pittsboro's Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. He holds a sax chair in Orquesta GarDel, leads his own reggae-flavored jazz and ska outfit and plays in local ska ensemble Archbishops of Blount Street.
"Tim is just one of the most musical people I've ever met," Kimosh gushes. "No matter what situation he's in, he just fits in and will just stab you every time."
"We've rocked out with Tim on several occasions," Freelon recalls. "I remember when we were featuring him at our aLive Tuesdays series at Jack Sprat, there was one point where he's playing the piano with his left hand, and he's got his flute in his right hand. And then he's kind of singing at the same time. I'm just like, 'Man, this guy is nasty.'"
Though he is likely lesser known to the indie-rock community than the rest of the expanded Beast ensemble, Aaron Hill works steadily as a player in the area jazz scene. He is a fine technician of his instrument—"a killer soloist," says Hirsh. Hill is a frequent substitute in Orquesta GarDel and plays with several jazz orchestras.
"I met him on a couple of random freelance gigs. He brews beer, and I also brew beer so we hit it off," Coffman explains. "This was before we even started playing together. He's a great reader and an amazing soloist. Just a great all-around musician."
Andy Kleindienst is Hirsh's co-director in Orquesta GarDel, and he has known all four members of The Beast since they were in school together at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. A Durham native, he will head north to Rutgers University this fall to pursue his masters by studying with Latin jazz trombone stalwart Conrad Herwig.
"One of the common Beast stories is that we all met in college, and we've all been doing stuff forever and then we were The Beast," Hirsh says. "Andy's kind of right there in that crew of people. One of us has been living with him continuously for the past eight years. He's my right-hand man, and I respect the hell out of him. In the time post-college, he's become a better bass player, a better arranger, a better trombonist, a better leader. When you watch a GarDel show and see him onstage, he's the person calling the cues for the next section. It's like a full-bodied ballet."
A singer, songwriter, session player and improviser, Shana Tucker has been in Las Vegas of late, performing in Cirque du Soleil. Tucker was a guest for one night of The Beast's aLive Tuesdays series at Jack Sprat last year. On the same day as one of the big-band rehearsals, Coffman and Kimosh will back Tucker in a concert at Raleigh's Marsh Woodwinds.
"She's a workhorse," Coffman says. "She booked a gig while she's in town, and the trio's playing with her, and there's three rehearsals for that. She doesn't care. She just fucking works. And that's really admirable."
Not only is Karen Galvin currently the assistant concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony, but with her husband, Shawn, she runs New Music Raleigh, a collective dedicated to curating and programming classical works by living composers. Last year, they produced a Raleigh performance of Sarah Kirkland's Penelope, which featured Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond.
"We became close because I was the pianist for their spring chamber music concert in April," Hirsh says. "Very similar to The Beast's big band—just a few rehearsals to nail some difficult pieces by Duke composers and folks on the New Amsterdam label."
Ganz and his wife, Grammy-nominated singer Kate McGarry, are both internationally known jazz musicians. They moved to Durham from Chicago and now live down the street from Coffman. He has been the guitarist of choice for Harry Connick Jr., Kurt Elling, Luciana Souza and Gretchen Parlato, and he has shared the bandstand with Christian McBride, Chris Potter, Russell Malone, Victor Lewis and Fred Hersch.
"We were like, 'Man, it would be awesome to have a jazzy guitar player,'" Coffman says. "I had been hanging with Keith, so we called him. It was one of those crapshoot things of, 'Let's just see if Keith would even entertain the idea.' We haven't collaborated with him in The Beast vehicle, but I'm really excited."
Another Triangle mainstay, Brevan Hampden is equally suited as a jazz and R&B drummer. He is the timbale player for Orquesta GarDel and The Beast's go-to guy for percussion overdubs in the studio. He leads jazz groups at the Beyu Caffe in Durham and other jazz spots and has been a major catalyst for Latin percussion in the area. He is currently busy with his new project, Conjunto Breve.
"I've played with him in more projects than I have not," Kimosh says. "He's the glue. I think he's a self-proclaimed percussionist first, but you wouldn't know that. He plays everything equally killingly."
[Correction: We incorrectly stated that New Music Raleigh received grant money for its production of Penelope; they did not.]
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stretched claws."