Just to Be There

The duo behind Beautiful Bird say it's mandatory to find the time to make music

From a purely superficial point of view, local experimental duo Beautiful Bird--trumpeter Noah Thomas and singer Kelly Michaelis--make improvisational jazz and ambient electronica.

But the sounds of Beautiful Bird are about the processes of listening and of interpreting sensations--which is to say that the music's meaning is contained in the listener's interpretation of the unique interplay of musical elements: abstract sound collages, structured improv, elegant vocals and rich melody.

For instance, the song "Generation of the Fallen" begins with gentle droplets of a beat and a sample that sounds like, for lack of a better description, distorted waves of gentle scraping. Stark, Satie-like piano chords and languorous lines of trumpet seem to float into hearing range.

And then, as if appearing out of the mists of a dream, emerge Michaelis' rich, jazz-inflected vocals:

"To the generation of the fallen / where are you to guide us? / You who have seen the end of the movement / I ask 'Can there be an end to causes?'"

Not sure what that means? That's OK. Beautiful Bird doesn't always intend to generate concrete meaning from Thomas' lyrics, which he modestly described as "bad poetry."

In a recent interview in their midtown home, the two musicians said it's more important for Beautiful Bird to create a sound space or atmosphere than to be interpreted literally.

"We're trying most of all to create an experience," Thomas said.

Michaelis added: "Although I see that people at our gigs are listening, it's not music where it's important for you to be super attentive, but just to be there."

Although Thomas writes most of the songs, as with everything by Beautiful Bird, the creation of the vocals is a collaborative process.

"Sometimes, there's no melody until Kelly comes along," Thomas said. "She plays a large part in shaping the original song, especially the way it flows lyrically."

Thomas, 35, is a classically trained trumpeter who has been playing classical and jazz music since he was 8 years old. He grew up in Ventura, Calif., attended University of California Santa Cruz and New York University.

An archaeologist working on his doctorate at the University of Arizona, Thomas moved to Tucson to take a UA job in 2000. He has since played with Libre de Grasa, Giant Sand, Fashionistas and the jazz singer Bernadette Seacrest. These days, he also plays in Jeremy Michael Cashman's group.

Michaelis, now 29, moved to Tucson from Phoenix to go to medical school at the UA. She changed her educational course a couple of times, taught high school science in Marana and is now working on a master's degree in speech and language pathology.

She met Thomas at a Libre de Grasa gig soon after arriving in Tucson. They are married and have a 14-month-old son, Jonah.

Thomas and Michaelis have collaborated on Beautiful Bird since 2003. In addition to music, the two create visual arts, including drawings, sculpture and photographs, some of which can be seen on their Web sites (beautiful-bird.com and myspace.com/beautibird). They also have occasionally shown old 8- and 16-mm films as a backdrop during their performances.

Michaelis' singing calls to mind the soul-jazz innovation of one of her idols, Nina Simone, as well as the traditions of choral groups and musical theater, both of which have figured significantly in her background. She also cites the inspiration of such vocal artists as Abbey Lincoln, Ella Fitzgerald and Cat Power.

In addition to playing trumpet, piano, melodica, theremin and turntables, Thomas incorporates loops and samples into the Beautiful Bird soundscape. But perhaps his most insistent voice is a gentle, muted trumpet sound that comes on like Miles Davis at his most contemplative.

Thomas and Michaelis have recorded a three-song EP, which they are using as a promotional tool and a preview of the album they have in the works.

"We're recording at home right now, so we have to steal time when we can," Michaelis said.

You might be able to weasel a copy of Beautiful Bird's CD out of them at a gig, or you can hear all three songs on their MySpace site.

Using samples and loops has allowed Beautiful Bird a large amount of musical freedom, even when they play only as a duo. For this, Thomas is grateful for the emergence of cut-and-paste techniques developed by 1970s ambient artists, as well as those of contemporary hip-hop artists, but he and Michaelis hope their music challenges the conventions of both genres.

"It's cool to take the technology and turn it around and get different rhythms," Thomas said, "and especially find rhythms that aren't based on traditional beats, to find something people aren't already used to hearing."

Beautiful Bird plays once or twice a month. Their next gig is scheduled for July 17 at Plush. At that show, the duo will collaborate with violinist Vicki Brown, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with many local artists, including Amy Rude, John Coinman, Campo Bravo, the New Drakes, Will Elliott and Cathy Rivers.

When the busy couple doesn't have time for their music, they start to ache for it, Michaelis said, so they have to make time.

"Life will just keep you distracted if you let it," she said. "But we have big aspirations for staying together and creating music together for the rest of our lives."

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