Album Reviews

Ilya Portnov, Russian harpist makes Strong Brew

Strong Brew

Artist:     Ilya Portnov

Album:     Strong Brew

Label:     Self-released

Release Date:     12.15.2017


This is the debut solo album from Russian-born, now Los Angeles based harmonicist Ilya Portnov, who studied in the U.S. at the New England Conservatory, the first person accepted with the diatonic harmonica as the main instrument. Ilya began playing classical piano at age four but was influenced by both his dad’s love of rock music and taking up an old harmonica of his dad’s. That soon became Ilya’s obsession in adolescence.

Today Portnov plays both the diatonic and chromatic harmonica, having been influenced and mentored by three of the most innovative players on the instrument: Jason Ricci, Howard Levy, and Carlos del Junco. As you might expect, you’ll hear strains of classical and European folk music in Portnov’s originals, of which there are nine. He also covers Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cincinnati Flow Rag” and a popular early Russian tune, “In A Town Garden.”

The album was recorded at today’s premier West Coast studio for blues and roots, Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose. Andersen plays guitar and bass on the album as well as handling the engineering. Chris Burns is on keys while June Core takes care of drums and percussion. Players from Portnov’s other projects join in too. Roby Vye, from his acoustic duo, plays acoustic guitar on one track while Ben Andrews from Portnov’s Brazilian band, Choro Bastardo, plays violin on two cuts.

Portnov was originally going to feature American, Russian, and Brazilian music but detoured as he explains “….I realized that the overall sound of the album seemed very ‘American,’ even though there were elements coming from Europe and Russia. So, I decided to exclude the Brazilian part from this album and record a separate album in Brazil. He also said, “I wrote tunes in different styles for it; there is one that is a kind of a tribute to a great early jazz clarinet player, Sidney Bechet. There is a surf-rock tune. There are several kinds of blues…There is a waltz that I wrote. Tango is very big in Russia especially in the first half of the 20th century, and many Russian composers wrote tangos, so, I wrote one for this album.”

The sound departs from most harmonica albums and from instrumental albums in general, as European and classical strains blend with the blues. Portnov’s technique is smooth, lyrical, and often jazzy, akin in effect to Johnny Hodges on alto sax, where the melody just floats easily above the accompaniment. While the first part of the album is diverse and European influenced, blues comes to the fore in “Behind the Wall” and forcefully in the closer, “Till the Early Morning.” The title track has plenty of soul jazz elements, highlighting Burns’ organ. The project also speaks volumes about musicians like Andersen, Burns, and Core in their ability to adapt to the mix of Portnov’s influences.

—Jim Hynes

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