Jim Campilongo Frees His Mind on "Dream Dictionary"

The Tele-wielding twang jazzman discusses the creative inspiration behind his latest release, Dream Dictionary.

I was listening to a lot of John McLaughlin-era Miles Davis when I made my latest album, Dream Dictionary,” says Jim Campilongo. “I was largely going for that style of spontaneous, in-studio creation. I wanted to hear the sound of discovery.”

Campilongo pushes the envelope on a Fender Telecaster like Jeff Beck manhandles a Strat. His beyond-the-nut string bends, pedal-steel-like pitch manipulations, and rich harmonic textures come across like Cirque du Soleil playing the Grand Ole Opry, with some heady downtown jazz soundscapes tossed into the mix. The Brooklyn resident—who moonlights with Norah Jones playing country music in the Little Willies—actually sounds like he’s feeling very NYC on his tenth album as a leader.

Campilongo started dreaming up Dictionary [Blue Hen] when he met upright bassist Chris Morrissey (Mason Jennings) and drummer Josh Dion (Pat Martino, Chuck Loeb) last March. He hustled his new trio into Bedford Studio with producer Andy Tommasi (Iggy Pop, Leni Stern) where he quickly captured supernatural stuff.

The ethereal title track, a brazen new rendition of his tune “Heaven Is Creepy,” the alternately straight and shuffling “Tony Mason,” and an abstract interpretation of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” exemplify the aforementioned Davis influence—but there is still more to Dictionary. Melancholy feelings drip from Campilongo’s fingers via haunting melodies on the beautiful ballad, “The Past Is Looking Brighter and Brighter;” he careens off of Jones’ breathy vocal with a singing blues solo on “Here I Am;” he and Steve Cardenas get gypsy on the acoustic guitar duet, “One Mean Eye;” and his first-ever solo acoustic recording, “Suppose,” echoes Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” and Duane Allman’s “Little Martha.”

The timing on the vibey opening track, “Cock and Bull Story,” is wild. Playing any further behind the beat could cause serious injury.

I do that a lot because stretching time feels remarkable to me, although it sometimes feels excruciating to elongate the rhythm of a melody that much. It’s the opposite of how Willie Nelson might rush the phrasing, and then leave a long pause. I like to stretch the phrasing, and then leave a short pause. What happens is funny though: it feels like time comes to a halt, and I’m thinking of all these different directions I might go in next. The listener hardly notices I’ve paused for half a second, but I feel like it lasted 20 seconds.

How did McLaughlin’s influence manifest on Dream Dictionary?

His vibe and spirit manifest on the more impressionistic tracks. I play some A7/9 cluster chords on “Manic Depression” that might bring McLaughlin’s playing on Miles’ ATribute to Jack Johnson to mind. McLaughlin utilized some Townshend-style power chords on that album, and I do the same thing on “Cock and Bull Story” when the “A Love Supreme”- style raga vibe crashes into the power chord riff in the B section, although mine really sounds more like McLaughlin meets the Velvet Underground. Speaking of which, I was honored when Lou Reed actually came to see us play last year, and that I got to meet him before he passed away.

“Heaven Is Creepy” is such a great title. How do you conjure the whooshing sounds during the height of that track?

Those are tone knob swells. Most players go for the volume knob, but tone knob swells have more balls and you hear the whole swell. The beginning isn’t cut off and wimpy sounding. Dickey Betts plays a series of wonderfully operatic volume swells at the beginning of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” You hear every nuance. That’s amazing, but if you’re rocking out, the tone knob is better because it’s like, Whaaaam! You hear it from the get go. First it’s bass-y and louder than hell, and then it gets trebly and louder than hell.

There’s a bit of a trick to it because the tone knob is harder to reach—at least it is on my Tele. You have to roll your hand. When you run out of little finger start using the top of your ring finger, and then use your middle finger to finish it off.

What it’s like playing with Norah Jones in the Little Willies?

You can’t get too comfortable because she’s fearless about changing the feel and key signature of a song on the spur of the moment. Norah really likes the key of Bb, which I’ve learned to love because it’s underrated as an open-string key. You’ve got the open-G string itself, plus you can get a classic twang riff going by alternating between the open-A string and bending behind the nut to raise its pitch to the tonic. The same move works on the E string because you’re bending from the b5 to the 5. And on the D string that same bend is the 3 to the 4. You can do all of those easily on any guitar.

How did you develop your bluesy rendition of Ray Charles’ “Here I Am” with Jones?

First, she encouraged me to make it sound more “Jim.” I completely changed it on the spot at rehearsal. That’s how I arrived at the stark, menacing vibe. In the studio, she nailed her vocal on the first take. We could have approached the guitar solo in heavy blues fashion à la Frank Zappa and Don “Sugarcane” Harris on “Directly From My Heart to You,” but I like how the solo complements her vocal in a more subtle way. It’s a bit Hendrix-y, too—something like “Belly Button Window.”

Did you cut it live?

The live take was a bit like Kenny Burrell on “Midnight Blue,” but I wanted something more feminine sounding, so I overdubbed a new solo.

How did you capture the tones on Dream Dictionary?

I mostly used a ’70-ish silverface Fender Princeton Reverb with a Celestion G10 Vintage speaker. We miked the front, the back, and the room during tracking. Then I did what I always do and re-amped it—meaning we sent the signal back out into another amp. In this case it was an old tweed Fender Twin that Andy Tomassi bought from Buddy Guy. We placed front and room mics, and added plate reverb and compression. The final mix was mostly the Princeton with the Twin filling out the bottom end. It was a nice yin to the Princeton’s yang.

You’re famous for coaxing a huge, pristine sound out of just a Tele and a sole vintage Princeton. When you buy one, how do you make that old thing sing?

I spray money out of a fire hose onto it! I replace the speaker, pots, caps, and power tubes, which I have biased to run really hot. It all adds up to sounding louder onstage and quieter in the studio. Most vintage amps you find are completely wrecked. You have to spend an extra $300 in replacement parts to get one up to speed. I’m like a professional racecar driver when it comes to gear. “Hmm, if we take the bumper off, maybe I can shave a second off my time!”

What are your thoughts on the Fender Vintage Reissue ’65 Princeton Reverb?

Fender did a nice job with the reissue, and I use it on tour. When I show up to a gig overseas to find a reissue Princeton in the backline, I fall to my knees and cry because I’m so grateful. Actually, Fender just released a ’68 reissue loaded with a Celestion speaker that I can’t wait to try.

What guitars did you use to record Dream Dictionary, and how did the tracks go down?

I used my Martin 00-15 on the acoustic guitar duet with Steven Cardenas, “One Mean Eye.” I was trying to write a tune in the style of Érik Satie. And I was actually just auditioning the studio when I cut “Suppose” on Andy’s great big Gibson acoustic.

The workhorse was my ’59 Telecaster. We cut most everything live to analog tape as a trio. Other than on “Pie Party,” most of the solos were cut with the band, and then I added some rhythm overdubs. I overdubbed a rhythm track and the descending parts at the end of “The Past Is Looking Brighter and Brighter” through a Leslie speaker cabinet. On “Nang Nang,” I overdubbed a weird ska rhythm with my orange signature Telecaster, and the engineer conjured up the trippy, effected sound.

A student gave you the ’59 Tele in exchange for some lessons many years back. Do you have any thoughts on guitar instruction in the digital age?

In-person students nowadays want to record everything on their smartphones, which is both good and bad. If trying to frame video of my hands on the fretboard during a demonstration distracts the student, it’s difficult to achieve the intangible parallel of a successful personal connection, so I don’t allow video recording. I do, however, encourage audio recording because it gives the student a document of the lesson to go home and study.

And it’s just so cool how easy it is to teach globally these days. I offer lessons on my website, and it’s pretty mind-blowing that guitarists all over world can download a lesson, hear my voice, follow my fingerings, and, hopefully, laugh at my jokes.