The twenty-eight year old Ilya Portnov grew up in Russia and started playing piano at the age of four. His father exposed him to British rock but he mostly studied classical and folk music. His first harmonica teacher introduced him to the music of Jason Ricci, Howard Levy, and Carlos del Junco.
Portnov came to the U.S. to further study at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He was the first person to be accepted with the diatonic harmonica as his main instrument and has since earned a Master’s degree. Using a technique he learned to play a full chromatic scale on a diatonic harp. Since living in the States he has been playing a lot of blues, roots and jazz. This all instrumental album includes seven originals and two covers in a variety of musical styles.
This is Portnov’s solo debut and the album was recorded, mixed and mastered by Kid Anderson at Anderson’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose. Portnov plays both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas; included also are Anderson, guitar and bass; Chris Burns, piano and keyboards; and June Core, drums and percussion.
“Sunny Afternoon Blues” is a jazzy blues featuring Portnov on a diatonic, Burns on piano and Ben Andrews on fiddle. Andrews plays fiddle again on “1928” a tango. Andrews also plays with Portnov in a Brazilian band called Choro Bastardo.
“Behind The Wall” is another blues and the only track featuring Portnov on a chromatic. Robby Yamilov guests on bass.
“Surfin’ The Baltic Seas” is a Russian surf rock tune featuring some great drumming from Core.
“Dance of a Lonely Doll” is a waltz with some terrific phrasing from Portnov. The title track, “Strong Brew” is a tribute to the great jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet; featured are Burns on piano and Anderson with some great jazz guitar.
Portnov sounds like a fiddler himself on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cincinnati Flow Rag”. Featured on acoustic guitar is Rob Vye. Portnov and Vye competed in the solo/duo competition at the 2017 International Blues Challenge where they represented the Golden Gate Blues Society.
The other cover is “In a Town Garden”, a Russian tune from the 1940’s, and one of Portnov’s grandmother’s favorites. It’s performed as an organ combo with Burns.
The closer “Till The Early Morning” features both Burns and Core. It sounds as if it were inspired by Johnny Otis’ “Willie and The Hand Jive”.
Portnov is a fabulous harp player. This album can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their musical preferences. It’s that good.