"My dad used to sit by the phone and gig five nights a week," says 29-year-old Portland tenor saxophonist Dusty York of his father, Michael. But it's hard to get a paying gig these days. And with the recent announcement that the Blue Monk—the best Portland jazz spot behind Jimmy Mak's (already booked into 2008)—would no longer support live music, things just got worse for Portland's jazz musicians.
But with a firm handshake and brown eyes that find yours, Dusty York is a jazz musician with the ambition and charm of a young real-estate mogul, defying any laid-back jazz stereotypes. "I think it's a terrific opportunity," says the tattooed musician of the current state of Portland's jazz scene.
Like a savvy investor, York is on top of the trends. He's more likely to be seen hanging out at the Someday Lounge or watching a band like Seattle indie experimentalists the Dead Science than at Jimmy Mak's. While he speaks highly of that legendary jazz club, he's doing what he can to push local jazz out of the bars and hotels where it's been cornered for years. He recently booked a showcase for the bands on his label, Diatic Records, at an imposing downtown rental space more often used for weddings: the Old Church. York lost money on the show, as he does on the label. But he believes in his artists and knows that it will take time to change Portland's jazz landscape.
York stays busy as a catalyst for that change: booking house shows for his bands, seeking sponsorship for them from local businesses, and considering bizarre pairings like free-jazz and fetish nights. The breadth of York's goals is also reflected in the diversity of his label's roster. "He's trying to make a definitive Portland jazz label," says 23-year-old pianist (and Diatic artist) Ben Darwish. Along with the twentysomethings on Diatic's roster are beloved former Motown drummer Mel Brown and accomplished pianist/composer Dave Frishberg (age 74). Styles range from the Latin-influences of trumpeter Farnell Newton to the Paxselin Quartet's avant-jazz. York seeks out artists like himself: individualists who defy clichés.
The freshness York applies to business also comes through on his own trio's latest, Cinema 57. "Prince of Poverty" finds York spiraling out of a dizzying series of riffs while drummer Ken Paine drops the tune's pace into a long, forlorn-then-frantic solo by bassist Justin Durrie. The theatrical interchange is a perfect example of York's school of thought when it comes to individuating himself from other tenor players. "There's more to aspire to than the dazzler approach," he says.
Although Ellington and Coltrane influences are readily apparent, the trio's focus on rhythm, dynamics and crafting a unique improvisational voice makes Cinema 57 pretty gripping. The most striking moment comes at the album's halfway point: About 10 seconds into "Night People," York's father emerges to echo the opening phrase, sparking a two-tenor race and throb through the rest of the cuts. It's only fitting: Like Diatic Records itself, the greatest strength of Cinema 57 comes from bridging both visions and generations.