Ilya Portnov

Ilya Portnov

Harmonica player Ilya (i l e e y u h) Portnov’ s debut instrumental album contains nine eclectic tunes, seven of which are originals together with an arrangement of ‘Cincinnati Flow Rag’ and ‘In A Town Garden.’

Here’s what Ilya has to say about his new recording:

“On this album, I wanted to feature different kinds of music that play a big role in my life. Being in the US I’ve been playing a lot of blues and roots and some jazz music. I’ve been also playing and recorded with a few bands that play Brazilian music in the styles of choro and forro both here and in Brazil. As I grew up in Russia, I was exposed to a lot of European and Russian classical music and folk music from Europe and Russia.

I wrote most of the music for this album and at first the plan was to feature all these three countries on the album. I was going to record the “American” and “Russian” parts here in the US and then go to Brazil to record the “Brazilian” part and mix everything in the US. But after we started recording here in the US I realized that the overall sound of the album seemed very “American,” even though there were a lot of elements coming from Europe and Russia. So, I decided to exclude the Brazilian part from this album and record a separate album in Brazil (hopefully sometime soon).

I wrote tunes in different styles for it; there is one that is 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 an old American ragtime tune by Rev. Gary Davis, ‘Cincinnati Flow Rag.’ There is a popular Russian tune from the 1940’s, ‘In A Town Garden,’ (one of my grandmother’s favorite) that we recorded in a kind of organ trio style. 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.

It was all recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose, which mostly specializes in blues and roots music. Kid plays bass and guitar on the album and was the recording engineer too. It also features some other great musicians that specialize in blues, roots and jazz music. Chris Burns plays piano and keyboard. June Core on drums and percussion. There are also a couple of special guests – Rob Vye on acoustic guitar on one of the tracks. (Rob and I have a country blues duo that participated in the 2017 IBC representing the Golden Gate Blues Society). And Ben Andrews plays violin on two tracks. (Ben also plays in my other band, Choro Bastardo).

So, there is a big mixture of things on the album and a lot of different styles and I was trying to be very respectful to each of these styles.”


Ilya was born in Russia and grew up in the suburbs of Moscow. As he was born in 1989, all his documents say that his place of birth is the USSR. He came to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he obtained his Master’s degree, as the first person to be accepted with the diatonic harmonica as the main instrument. After graduating from NEC in 2014, Ilya moved to the West Coast. At first to San Francisco and now he’s based in Los Angeles.

Ilya started out playing piano at the age of four, mostly classical music. His dad is really into rock music, so he always heard a lot of British rock (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.) growing up. He also had a couple of friends, who played blues on the harmonica, and he was really into its sound. Finding an old harmonica that belonged to his dad, he was hooked and spent all his free time practicing, even skipping college just to stay home and practice. As he already had theoretical knowledge about music, he progressed swiftly on the harmonica and five years later was accepted into the Master’s program at the Contemporary Improvisation department of New England Conservatory, one of the most prestigious music schools in the US.

His first harmonica teacher in Russia, Alex Bratetsky, greatly influenced Ilya’s technique, developing an excellent basic foundation and introducing him to the “overblow” technique, which allows one to play a full chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica. His teacher also introduced Ilya to the music of Jason Ricci, Howard Levy and Carlos del Junco, a major turning point in his development. “After hearing these guys, I realized that I can play anything on the harmonica and that’s when I became very serious about it,” says Ilya. “I always liked the blues and that’s what I started with on the harmonica, but I could never see it as the only thing I would do just because of my background, the place where I grew up, and the culture I was surrounded by. So, hearing these three guys really changed a lot for me and I realized I can play anything I want on the harmonica. And later I was lucky enough to study with all three of them on different occasions. Also since coming to the US (and especially after moving to the West Coast) I started studying blues and American roots music on a deeper level and it’s now a much bigger part of what I do. After graduating from NEC, I started playing chromatic harmonica too. And even though I can play all the chromatic notes on a diatonic harmonica, the chromatic harmonica has a different sound and I do like it for certain projects.”

“Strong Brew” is his debut solo project. A few years ago, Ilya recorded an album with one of his bands called Choro Bastardo, which plays Brazilian music, and he has also recorded on a bunch of other people’s albums. Some of them are released in the US, some in Brazil, and some in Russia. Ilya is featured in an NPR Music article on the harmonica –

NOVEMBER 10, 2017
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