Ilya Portnov – Three
9 songs – 37 minutes
The only artist ever to graduate from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music while specializing in diatonic harmonica, Ilya Portnov is one of the classiest, most polished and inventive instrumentalists in the blues world today, something that’s instantaneously apparent when you give this stellar all-instrumental album a spin.
Now in his early 30s, Portnov grew up in Russia and started playing piano at age four, studying classical and folk music. He acquired his love for the blues through his father’s love for British rock and through his first harmonica instructor who turned him on to Howard Levy, Jason Ricci and Canadian Carlos Del Junco – all of whom are masters of the overblow technique, which turns a simple, 10-hole harp into the equivalent of a chromatic.
Since graduating from college in Boston, Ilya’s been based out of Los Angeles for the better part of the decade. He mixes straight-ahead blues with diverse influences, including jazz, classical, funk and Balkan folk, delivering highly technical arrangements effortlessly in a style that’s been compared favorably with sax wizard Johnny Hodges. Like the title suggests, this is his third CD, following Choro Bastardo, a band project that mixed Brazilian and world music, and Strong Brew, which earned him a 2018 Blues Blast Music Awards nomination for best new artist debut album.
Like Strong Brew, this disc was recorded by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Calif., and features a lineup that includes Chris Burns on keys, June Core on drums and Endre Tarczy on bass. Andersen sits in on guitar and bass for two cuts, and Ben Andrews appears on guitar and violin for one.
Ilya opens the action on the low end of a chromatic harp for “Sly Dog,” a sweeping blues with jazzy overtones and a sweet, minor-key instrumental on keys from Burns that slides from mirroring six-string to Hammond B3 organ. Portnov’s attach is light, quick and delicate as he glides across the reeds, alternating single-note runs with chords before returning to the repetitive bass root.
The only cover in the set — Francisca Gonzaga’s “Corta Jaca” – translated “cut the jackfruit” – follows. It’s a sprightly samba with blues overtones than features Andrews and Andersen as Ilya delivers some of the fattest, sugary notes you’ll hear this year. The sound moves to New Orleans for “Crawfish Stomp,” a jazzy number with a ‘30s feel, before it explodes with “Tilt-a-Whirl,” an uptempo, rapid-fire, stop-time pleaser with a strong Chicago feel.
“Slippers and Boots,” an unhurried, minor-key waltz, delivers a strong textural change before the blues shuffle, “Big Breaths,” kicks things into overdrive once more. Ilya takes his foot off the pedal for the slow blues ballad, “81˚ F,” before launching into a little ‘60s European pop with “Up in the Sky” and the interesting “Sphere Dance,” a folksy, minor-key pleaser with regimented drumbeat that starts slowly before blazing to a close.
Available through most major online retailers and strongly recommended. If you like instrumental blues and are looking for something completely different, this disc is definitely for you!