An Interview with Greg Izor - a rising powerhouses in the world of blues with deeply rooted traditional sound

"Blues has taught me many things- about parts of our lives that have always been here, and about parts of life that are now gone."

Greg Izor: Let The Good Pleasures Roll

Greg Izor has quickly become one of the rising powerhouses in the world of blues harmonica. Effortlessly blending the sounds of South Louisiana, Chicago, and Texas he creates a deeply rooted traditional sound that is unique and fresh. Greg grew up in Vermont, honing his chops with local bands. He moved to New Orleans in 2000, in order to study with the masters of blues, and immediately fell in with the cream of the crescent city’s blues scene. He came under the wing of one of today’s greatest harmonica players, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone. Sansone mentored his young student, and taught him the importance of carving out an individual style. Izor strives to make traditional music fresh, by bringing a great deal of intensity and creativity to his playing, and by adding a variety of influences.                                                                               Photo by Kate Izor

He developed his fiery showmanship on Bourbon Street in his early twenties, where he was featured at the Funky Pirate Club five nights a week. Izor is also a member of the King Brisket Boys, a New Orleans all-star blues band that started out as the house band at Gatemouth Brown’s BBQ joint. During his time in Louisiana, Greg played with a number of legends including Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Eddie Bo, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, Henry Gray, Wolfman Washington, and Oliver “La La” Morgan. 

Moving to Austin in 2006, Izor immediately fell in with the cream of the city’s blues talent, playing with veterans like Pinetop Perkins, Gary Primich, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, and Marcia Ball, as well as young upstarts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Mike Keller, Johnny Moeller, and Nick Curran. He rapidly established his reputation for intense, high energy performances, stunning technique and musical prowess, playing at clubs like the Continental and Antone’s, as well as cutting his first record, I Was Wrong. Izor’s songwriting and playing shows the influence of the harmonica masters, as well as Louisiana blues, southern soul, swamp pop, early jazz, and R&B. Greg’s album Close To Home (2013) was recorded live in the studio, with all the musicians together in the same room, playing off of each other.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues has taught me many things- about parts of our lives that have always been here, and about parts of life that are now gone. It’s become a cliché, but blues is a feeling, that can’t really be put into words.  If it could be described, then it wouldn’t be the same. There are many types of great and wonderful music that aren’t blues, because they express a different feeling. I’ve learned many things about myself through learning how to express myself through blues.

How do you describe Greg Izor sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Another tough one! My sound comes from many different influences, blues, jazz, country, zydeco, R&B, gypsy music; and all those things come through my music. But the one thing that is always constant is that I play fresh every time. I don’t have any set licks that I play, I play different every time I put the instrument in my mouth, and I sing different every time. I play different every time, because I feel different every night- it creates an intensity and immediacy for me. I always challenge myself to play fresh, and if I feel myself repeating, I force myself to play different. I only sing songs that I have a personal feeling for. My philosophy is to learn as much as possible from the masters, and keep returning to the masters for inspiration, and to create music in my own way. I listen to Muddy and the Walters and the Sonny Boys and Cotton and George Smith and Carey and Junior EVERY DAY. I also listen to Monk and Armstrong and Miles EVERY DAY. It keeps the sounds in my head. There are many, many great songs that I love, or that I think are clever, or interesting, but I don’t sing them because they aren’t a natural fit for me. For example, many novelty songs are funny, and can really get the audience going, but I don’t sing them because I have to have a feeling for the song to sing it. That’s why I mostly sing my own songs. Also, I don’t ever look out at the audience and try to figure out what to play to make them like me. Instead, I play what I play, my music, as best and as honestly as I can. It’s like with humans, I don’t like being around people trying to impress me, or who are doing the “like me like me!” or “look at me look at me!” thing. I prefer to be around people who are themselves. That’s a big influence on my music, I am myself, as best as possible. Also, when I’m playing and singing, and it feels good, it’s like a trance, and I don’t like to come out of it, and think about things. I want to stay in the trance. My philosophy includes all the pleasures, food, music, wine, good people, good times, they all go together- I enjoy life!

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?  

All periods of my life have been interesting. I love playing music and travelling, I have lived in rural environments, urban environments, in the North, in the South, in the West, in America, Europe, I have been surrounded by lots of stimulus, and opportunities to learn. I learn as much as I possibly can at all times, and I’m always listening to the people around me, and listening to new music, eating new foods, and making the most of things. I love learning, and luckily, I’m in new environments learning new things all the time!  I have had many great moments in my career, and I continue to have great times all the time!  I’ve had the opportunity to play with and spend time with and learn from many masters and people I’ve admired. Whether it’s been appearing with my heroes, like Anson Funderburgh or Johnny Sansone on big festivals, or travelling the world with great bands and friends like King Bee, Max Prandi, and Blues Express; or playing around the corner from my house with the Peacemakers, I have had the opportunity to play with great musicians who are close friends for audiences of all kinds- and eat great food!  I don’t think I’ve had a “worst moment” in my career, even the times where things haven’t gone as well as I would have liked, I’ve learned from the experience and used it as an opportunity to reflect.

"I’m playing and singing, and it feels good, it’s like a trance, and I don’t like to come out of it, and think about things. I want to stay in the trance. My philosophy includes all the pleasures, food, music, wine, good people, good times, they all go together- I enjoy life!"

Why did you think that the New Orleans music continues to generate such a devoted following? 

I’m not really sure, but I love it! One thing that was true of New Orleans music of the past, and was part of the sound, was that it used to be in New Orleans music, each instrument played something different, and combined it sounded like a lot more musicians. Now, there is a tendency in all types of music towards unison parts, which I try to avoid. I much prefer to have each musician doing something different that all fits together like a puzzle. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting Johnny Sansone was very, very important for me. He taught me so much, and I moved down to New Orleans just to follow him around. We became very close friends and he has done so much to teach me through example. Also, my very first musical inspiration was Louis Armstrong, and he remains a strong influence on me. Being exposed to his music at a young age and playing trumpet really defined the direction of what I’ve done with my life. As far as advice, it’s all been good! Even the bad advice has given me directions not to follow!!

Are there any memories from Eddie Bo, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown which you’d like to share with us?

Well, I remember Eddie Bo wanted to play “Proud Mary” in Eb, that was a little surprising. Gate was funny, we got along well because he was Cajun, and my mother’s family was French-Canadian, he said we were the same people! We had fiddle music in common, and he was a funny guy. Some of those memories I’ll tell you when I see you!

"I think the harmonica is part of blues because it expresses a certain feeling. I love how it makes sound both ways- in and out." (Photo by Roser Blues - Roser Infiesta Valls, Mrs. Zúmel)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss most is the creativity and fire, the old blues was played with a lot of creativity and intensity within a certain framework.  There are many creative players now, but, I don’t feel that it is as common. As far as the future, I’m worried that music as a whole has sacrificed creativity in exchange for flash, and personal expression is losing out to self-indulgence. I’m encouraged that there are a number of harp players my age who I think are wonderful and keeping the tradition going, I’m looking forward to working with the guys that come up in the generation behind us too! Also, blues is still popular around the world, and there are many great bands playing the music all over!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The only thing I would change would be to have recordings of music from times before the technology was available. And I’d love to hear the lost recording of Buddy Bolden!

Which memory from Pinetop Perkins, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, and Henry Gray makes you smile?

Trading licks with Jerry McCain, and looking up to see him playing out of his nose. Pinetop was cool, he was a funny guy. Henry Gray had some great stories about being in Chicago in the 50s.  Some more stories to tell over drinks, maybe not in print!

"It’s become a cliché, but blues is a feeling, that can’t really be put into words.  If it could be described, then it wouldn’t be the same. There are many types of great and wonderful music that aren’t blues, because they express a different feeling." (Photo by Kate Izor)

What are the lines that connect the Blues from Louisiana grit, to Austin soul, and low-down Chicago heat?

Well, they are all types of intensity that fuel my playing.

Do you know why the harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

I think the harmonica is part of blues because it expresses a certain feeling. I love how it makes sound both ways- in and out. The secrets of harmonica? I’m not really sure, I think it’s all in there, there are no limitations. Many guys are doing something creative with the harp within the framework of the blues, and keeping it blues while still doing something new. Many other guys are doing creative things that are not in the framework of blues, and I enjoy that too. I love the instrument, whether it’s in blues, country, ska, harmonica groups, classical, Argentinian tangos, I love it all!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Well, I wouldn’t want to disrupt the space-time continuum, but I would love to have seen Big Walter Horton.

Greg Izor - official website

(Photo by Cristina Casotto)

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