It’s easy to come up with superlatives when talking about acknowledged Telecaster master Jim Campilongo—even in a city as crowded with hotshot musicians as New York, the astonishing guitarist’s gifts are dazzlingly evident the moment his fingers meet the strings.
Tenth Campilongo solo album Dream Dictionary just arrived last week, and if anyone needs further proof of, one, his sense of musical adventure and, two, the sheer magic of his abilities with a guitar, it’s all there in abundance. Something of a departure from previous solo outings, Dream Dictionary is unabashed and free, with more Miles Davis-influenced songs that venture into uncharted territory. Campilongo is way beyond his country-politan roots here, with an album that contains his strongest original material yet and presents the sound of an evolving artist breaking new ground.
Title track “Dream Dictionary” is “the most impressionistic piece on the album,” he said. “It certainly has atmospheric textures unlike any previous recordings of mine. I’ve not had the guts to release anything like this before.”
On the Ray Charles-penned “Here I Am,” Campilongo’s Little Willies bandmate Norah Jones contributes the album’s only vocal.
“In my mind it was my most successful collaboration with Norah,” Campilongo said. “I worked really hard on making it personal and unique. She came in the studio and absolutely nailed it on the first take. I’ve been working with Norah for 10 years, and I felt my jaw drop out of pure amazement of the emotion she brought to the song. It’s hard to keep up with Norah, but I played my best blues solo I’ve ever recorded.”
Dream Dictionary highlights include a notably distinctive cover of Jimi Hendrix Experience classic “Manic Depression,” a Chet-Atkins-meets-Les-Paul romp called “Pie Party,” an acoustic duet with fellow guitar ace Steve Cardenas called “One Mean Eye,” and Campilongo’s first-ever solo acoustic guitar track, the Mason Williams-inflected “Suppose.”
Other tracks include “Nang Nang” (“like Thelonious Monk playing country guitar,” he said), “The Past is Looking Brighter and Brighter” (“one of the best songs I’ve ever written”), “Cock and Bull Story” (“originally written as a vehicle for drummer Josh Dion, who I think is one of the greatest drummers on Earth”), “Tony Mason” (“everything I wanted it to be—dirty, raw and smart”), a new rendition of his own “Heaven is Creepy” (“hands down the most audacious take I’ve recorded to date”) and hauntingly stark ballad “Alana.”
Dream Dictionary finds Campilongo working in a remarkably adept trio with bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Josh Dion, with whom he said he has “unprecedented chemistry.”
“I think Josh and Chris are one of the greatest rhythm sections in the history of the world, and we absolutely take no prisoners,” Campilongo added. “On a good night we sound like ’70s Miles Davis meets the Who.”
Campilongo grew up devouring Davis albums such as Bitches Brew, On the Corner, Agharta and Pangaea. After revisiting these records, his songwriting seemed to automatically absorb their influence.
“On this record I tried to stretch out a bit in terms of my arrangements,” he said. “I love the craft of songwriting and typically write songs in A-A-B-A form, but since I’ve been obsessively listening to these Miles records, I wanted to write with less traditional structure. Totally free.”
Campilongo left his native San Francisco for New York in the early 2000s, and his home of a dozen years now is also reflected in the album and intertwined with the sounds of his greatest influence.
“As a New Yorker, I feel like I’m reciting the sounds and urban noise I constantly hear,” he said. “It was a revelation to me that there was a fine line between these Miles recordings and the street noise outside my apartment window. Josh, Chris and I love playing this way—it’s fun.”
Campilongo’s remarkably varied discography reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” in music (Jones, J.J. Cale, Cake, Martha Wainwright, Nels Cline, Bright Eyes, Gillian Welch and many others), and he has staked a distinctive claim for himself as a guitarist’s guitarist, a top-notch sideman and a charmingly compelling solo artist in his own right. Guitar Player magazine readers know him as a contributing editor, and discerning Fender fans—Telecaster aficionados in particular—know him as a Fender Custom Shop signature artist with his own Telecaster model, and as the star of a much-viewed Princeton amp demo video.
All of which brings Campilongo to today. With Dream Dictionary, his masterful musicianship and arranging expertise show not only new exploration in his songwriting, but also a fascinatingly eclectic combination of influences that only he could possibly conjure—and successfully pull off.
“I always wanted to tackle the incredibly daring feat of channeling my lifelong affinity for Miles in the studio,” he said. “The absurd synergy with Josh and Chris provided that opportunity for me. It’s really a blessing.”