For a few years now, Durham's The Beast have thrilled Triangle crowds, using sometimes rather smooth jazz as an unlikely propulsion for restless, forward-thinking hip-hop. Since 2012, they've augmented that sound for a few gigs with their Big Band, a 13-strong configuration that includes orchestral players from the consistently ambitious New Music Raleigh and members of other popular groups, including Peter Lamb & the Wolves and Lost in the Trees. Together, they've opened for Nnenna Freelon, the Grammy-nominated mother of Beast MC Pierce Freelon, and hit the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. Building on this success, they entered Durham’s Sound Pure Studios in early January to record Gardens, a four-song EP named for Duke University's annual "Music in the Gardens" series, where the Big Band played their first gig. Out on Oct. 22, it's the Beast's first release since 2011's Guru Legacy EP.
As you might expect, lead single "Cost of Living" (streaming below) promises a more expansive sound than previous Beast efforts. The 13 musicians tracked each song live without overdubs, playing off the chemistry they built during a year of shows and rehearsals. Here, the ensemble conjures soothing grandeur through undulating bass and keys, countering softly swaying strings and horns. Grooves emerge and decay. Freelon sings more than he raps, his adequate pipes elevated by an unflinching anthem for college graduates in poverty: "My education wasn't meant to be my execution," he moans, "but this student loan, it feels just like a guillotine."
The Beast + Big Band will celebrate the release Oct. 24 at Durham's Motorco Music Hall. Following that performance, the group's core quartet will enter the studio to cut another four-song EP with a more electric feel. They hope to release it before the end of the year.