Durham's crew of jazz and hip-hop fusion enthusiasts The Beast have built their reputation on a mountain of microcosmic missions. From their live mix of confessional raps and complicated vamps and incorporation of salsa to their involvement in hip-hop education and collaborations with jazz singer (and band mother) Nnenna Freelon, The Beast are missionaries of sorts, always determined to conquer new, ambitious projects.
Their desire to record an album with a large band—an orchestra, even—should come as little surprise. It's logical, in fact. Gardens, the new four-song EP, combines the bass-drums-keys-lyrics quartet with a supporting cast of seven locally known jazz and classical players, lifted from places such as the North Carolina Symphony and Lost in the Trees. Dubbed as Big Band, the septet expands the group's stylistic reach, even if it doesn't fan its fire.
Pierce Freelon's role as The Beast's rapping-and-singing frontman remains constant and obvious, but he sometimes flips between band conductor and space filler in a manner that relies too heavily on open-mic freeform. And when he launches into "Cost of Living" with the lines "College tuition/My intuition is this institution has got to be bullshittin' me," you might cringe a bit, as if the college professor is oversharing on social media.
But he overcomes many of his shortcomings as an emcee with enthusiasm. An educator and community activist, Freelon believes in these thoughts enough to reinvent them for 10 other musicians. The Beast turns its jazz aesthetic into less of a space where listeners prize the standout players and runs, and more of an easy-listening place where everyone can be a part of the experience. It's interactive jazz rap that chooses safety over sophistication or tension.
"How opposition regroups to deceive a movement," raps guest emcee Median on "My People," the one song here that reconfigures previous Beast material. His anti-Tea Party line marches over a maroon trumpet howl. "This is for my people who held me on their backs for so long," goes the chorus. This is where The Beast traps us: We're left with no choice but to root for the band with a progressive music agenda, to root for the good guy, no matter if the fare lacks the panache the material and concept demand.
"Sleeping in My Bed" shares some of the same frustrations that inspired Adam Mansbach to write his adult-only children's best-seller, Go the Fuck to Sleep. Both the song and the tome are about trying to get a kid to hit the sack, but Freelon's G-rated version flips the script—his kids are cockblocking. The Big Band assists the crusade from slowed salsa swing to anthemic rock, led by pianist Eric Hirsh's sympathetic keys. Hirsh is credited with "orchestrating" the whole of Gardens, meaning he had the arduous task of folding strings and horns into The Beast's songs. He succeeds admirably, even if this ambitious concept—big arrangements with music that previously thrived on jazz gumption—sometimes feels stiff.
The Beast + Big Band save their best for last, the closer "Brooklyn." Freelon shifts from his love for that New York borough to his dedication to North Carolina, an appropriate message given the Tar Heel synthesis for which this music aims. "From Bojangles to bodegas," raps Freelon, before adding above a bed of sparkling horns, "Everytime I try/Carolina's on my mind."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ambition and effect."