Saxophonist Tony Malaby trudges up the staircase to The Jazz Apartment. He spies an ashtray -- a miniature ceramic toilet bowl -- sitting on a table outside unit No. 4, his former domicile.
"This was here when I lived here," he says with a laugh, pointing to the knickknack.
It hasn't been all that long since Malaby lived in The Jazz Apartment, 1141 South Farmer in Tempe, hard on the railroad tracks. Not much has changed. Towering old trees still shade the entry courtyard. Musicians still occupy his old apartment -- in fact, all four units of the complex, which has no formal name. Life still has a lackadaisical throb, devoid of pretense if not purpose.
But Malaby, an Irish-Mexican reared in a Tucson barrio, has come far since he left The Jazz Apartment in 1995, bound for New York City. He's one of the brightest new stars in the firmament of modern jazz.
Today, Malaby, 36, shares stages and studios with the biggest names in avant-garde jazz. His discography contains 15 credits, and he recently released his own CD, Sabino, on the Arabesque label.
While he's the most celebrated musical alumnus of The Jazz Apartment, he is hardly the most notorious. That title is held by Psycho.
Psycho, a pure white female feline, was adopted by Malaby's then-future wife, Angelica Sanchez, in the early '90s. Sanchez, a jazz pianist from South Phoenix, lived downstairs in the complex at the time. She and Malaby moved from unit No. 1 upstairs to unit No. 4 in 1993, and welcomed Psycho and virtually anybody else with chops.
"We had a great scene," Malaby says. "We talk about how easy it was to live here. People bring up the apartment all the time. Being up at 2 or 3 in the morning, listening to music with other musicians, with the door open. It was a great hang. Everybody really watched out for each other."
Malaby would pedal his bike the few blocks to his sessions at Arizona State University, where he taught advanced improvisation, or to gigs he maintained all over Tempe.
"I would ride a girl's bike, because I could fit the tenor between the handlebars and the seat," he says.
The neighborhood's ambient sound whetted Malaby's appetite for the kinetic "downtown" jazz he practices today.
"When the train came by, the whole apartment would rattle. It got me into a place, into a rhythm," he says. "The two trees were full of birds, and they sing all night. That got me into playing along and practicing with them."
The imperious, spectral Psycho fit right in, and has fit in ever since.
Whomever occupies The Jazz Apartment -- virtually all of them have some connection to the music program at Arizona State University -- assumes responsibility for Psycho, whose eccentricities have become legendary. She lies on her back in the middle of Farmer, oblivious to traffic. She's been known to jump from rooftops or a tree onto unsuspecting interlopers.
"She'd never hurt anyone," Sanchez says. "She would just kind of do it and have a good laugh about it. She is funny that way."
When a candle started a fire in the bathroom and filled the place with smoke, Psycho clawed her way through a screen and leapt into a tree to escape.
"I used to hate that cat -- I just don't like cats," says Raul Yanez, a pianist who lived with Sanchez when she adopted the critter. "But Psycho has grown into a whole personality now. Everybody knows Psycho."
Yanez, whose ascendant band, Chicano Power Revival, ossified in this neighborhood, has wistful recollections of his time there.
"You wake up in the morning and the first thing you hear is a tenor sax, someone practicing," he says. "And if your neighbors are going to be up partying all night, that means we could play all night. We'd be up at 2 in the morning, banging on drums and the piano. That's what made it special.
"Living there, I met all the accomplished jazz musicians in Phoenix."
The current tenants of The Jazz Apartment are Simon Hutchings, a British citizen who's nearing his doctorate in music arts at ASU, and Erik Behr, an undergrad oboe player from South Africa.
"The couches date back to Tony," Hutchings says. "Whoever moves in owns the furniture. If they want to take it with them when they leave, they can. But they never do, for obvious reasons."
He and Behr know that they are current keepers of the apartment's legacy. Impressively, Hutchings ticks off a list of inhabitants: Sanchez, Malaby, Yanez, saxophonist Peter Scafura, trumpeter Jeremy Schroeder, sax man Andrew Gross, bassist Michael Ward, bassist Will Lovell. There was even a tuba player, Andrew Hitz.
Schroeder, who plies his trade on cruise ships these days, enunciates an unwritten rule: "The apartment is sort of considered open to previous inhabitants." He's currently staying with a friend elsewhere in the Valley, but says he may want to avail himself of the privilege at some point.
Schroeder used to take scissors to Psycho when her long hair became knotted, dramatically altering her appearance, but never her demeanor.
"She's sort of the icon of the apartments," Schroeder says.
Sanchez says it broke her heart to leave Psycho behind when she and Malaby moved to New York. But Psycho was left in good hands.
The other cat in her life was Malaby, and his musical sensibilities had clearly outgrown Arizona.
"The older and better I got, the harder it was to be here," he says. "Musically, this is a very conservative city. The people like jazz, but they like it swinging and polite. My wife and I wanted the music to be a lot more aggressive. After a while, we were so frustrated here. You can make three times the money by playing at the Biltmore in a tuxedo.
"If you want to be an artist here, you've got to create your own scene. To create a scene like I did at the Balboa [Cafe] was a fucking ordeal. You're a freak because you give a shit about something nobody else does."
The New York jazz community has embraced Malaby. He's recorded extensively with the top names in his genre, toured internationally and won stellar reviews.
"It's just so wonderful being surrounded by allies in New York," Malaby says. "There's so much purpose in New York with the musicians."
That purpose is on display when Malaby joins three of his New York brethren for a gig at Modified, the downtown Phoenix music and exhibition space. Tenor reed man Malaby, drummer George Schuler, bassist Ed Schuler and alto saxophonist Tim Berne -- all international jazz stalwarts -- comprise a quartet called the Schull Dogs. About 50 souls cram the venue.
The music is seldom melodic -- it's often atonal and cacophonic. But it's extraordinary. The intense musicianship and intricate interplay between the players is seductively exhilarating. The soft-spoken Malaby is a tempest unleashed, rocking at times like a spasmodic, blazing oil derrick.
It's well that Modified, housed in an old shop on Roosevelt Street, is neo-ramshackle -- the Schull Dogs are a sonic wrecking ball.
When the gig ends, well-wishers surround a drained and sodden Malaby. Students from ASU approach and pepper him with questions. He smiles and responds.
Malaby and Sanchez will perform at Modified again this Saturday evening.
I hope Psycho shows.
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