By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A Bay Area native who established himself as one of the most gifted guitarists on the San Francisco scene during the 1990s before relocating to New York City, Telecaster maestro Jim Campilongo has remained a singular voice on the six-string. Rising to prominence playing a jazzy style of instrumental Western swing heavily indebted to the blazing sounds of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Campilongo and his early band the 10 Gallon Cats became a staple at San Francisco bustling bars and clubs such as Bruno’s, the Paradise Lounge and Cafe Du Nord.READ MORE: UPDATE: Air Attack, Calming Winds Aid Firefighters Battling Wildfire Near Big Sur; Containment Grows To 25 Percent
While playing a decidedly different type of music than funkier fellow scene regulars like the Broun Fellinis and the Charlie Hunter Trio, Campilongo’s deft touch, nuanced songwriting and his dizzying interplay with pedal lap steel virtuoso Joe Goldmark made the group a favorite among clubgoers. The guitarist would branch out, putting together a variety of groups that found him performing and recording material in more of a jazz and blues vein with such notables as keyboard player Rob Burger (a member of all-star Henry Mancini tribute Oranj Symphonette and the experimental Tin Hat Trio) and talented drummer Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter Trio, TJ Kirk and numerous others). He would also add his indelible guitar melodies during session work for Sacramento alt-rockers Cake on their hit album Prolonging the Magic.
In the early 2000s, Campilongo would make a major move, pulling up stakes from the Bay Area to relocate to New York City after establishing ties with a number of musicians there, among them emerging jazz singer Norah Jones. The two would form the popular country covers act the Little Willies in 2003 with singer/songwriter Richard Julian and others after a celebrated one-off gig playing Hank Williams, Jr. and Kris Kristofferson songs in 2003, but the guitarist would mostly busy himself leading his own groups with a steady string of weekly performances that earned Campilongo a reputation as a musical force to be reckoned with in his adopted new hometown.
Even as he expanded his resume with additional live and studio session work (he has played with the late guitar great J.J. Cale, British rock legend Pete Townshend and songwriters Gillian Welch and Martha Wainwright to name a few), Campilongo has stayed focused on his music between recordings with country-tinged band Honeyfingers with duo collaborator and Telecaster advocate Luca Benedetti and residencies backed his freewheeling jazz-rock trio featuring bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer (and sometime singer) Josh Dion.
Earlier this year, the guitarist issued his latest recording, Live At Rockwood Music Hall NYC, on his own Blue Hen imprint. A concert document compiled from performances by the trio at the venue, the disc showcases the band’s explosive dynamics and near telepathic communication on a mix of revamped Campilongo originals and spontaneous jams.
Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday with a spectacular quartet show at regular haunt the 55 Bar in New York City’s West Village, Campilongo comes back to his former Bay Area home to play at Yoshi’s in Oakland on July 24 with Morrissey and Dion as well as special guest and frequent collaborator Nels Cline (best known for his incendiary guitar playing in Wilco, but a prolific bandleader in his own right). Campilongo recently took the time to answer questions via email about the challenges he faced when he first moved to New York, his love for improvisation and
CBS SF: When we talked at your birthday show, you mentioned not getting coverage for a show at Bruno’s with Bobby Black, a string section and pre-Come Away with Me Norah Jones as being part of the impetus for leaving San Francisco, though I’m sure there were other reasons. I was wondering how you ended up working with her so early prior to moving to NYC?
Jim Campilongo: I had worked with her then boyfriend Lee Alexander. He was an excellent bassist and we did quite a few gigs in San Francisco. Like many of my friends, he then moved to New York when there was a mass exodus in 2000 and beyond. I remember him emailing me after his NYC move saying he had met a really nice woman named Norah Jones. At that time, she was simply “Lee’s girlfriend,” but then I met her and was bowled over by her amazing artistry.
CBS SF: What was the most difficult aspect of relocating from SF?
Jim Campilongo: Many, many things! I had lived in a house in Brisbane for about 10 years and was a flea market regular, so I had a ton of stuff. Way too much! I basically had to get rid of about 90 percent of everything I owned — including a black Cadillac I still occasionally pine for. But I got down to basics: I brought a suitcase, a laptop, a guitar and an amp to New York and felt like I was starting over. It was very humbling and difficult at first, but it was a good move and I’m glad I did it.
CBS SF: Much like San Francisco, New York has gone through some seismic changes as far as gentrification of once affordable areas and rising rents in the past decade. Is the move something that would even have been feasible in more recent years?
Jim Campilongo: Despite gentrification, there still a great pool of talented musicians here in NYC that makes New York a very attractive place. Yes it’s changing, but there are still many venues where a musician can work on his craft with an audience that appreciates music. Probably because your average New York living situation isn’t so comfortable?
So going out is part of what keeps New Yorkers here — looking for place to be — to get out of claustrophobic apartments and to justify the struggles of living here. That said, I love NYC and I’m proud of being a small part of it. I’m also proud of the diversity that makes this place fascinating, and the tolerance that comes with actually experiencing the upside of the American experience.
CBS SF: When you moved to New York, was it difficult to settle into the scene as far as finding people to play with and places to gig? Or had you played there enough and were familiar with enough musicians that you fell into it pretty easily?READ MORE: Deadly Hit-And Run Marks Sixth Pedestrian Fatality in San Jose in 3 Weeks
Jim Campilongo: It felt pretty easy. I had a residency at the Knitting Factory that was originally booked for one month, but I ended up playing it for almost two years. Additionally, Bay Area drummer Scott Amendola hooked me up with some great players. Tim Luntzel and Dan Rieser were there for me upon my arrival and they were a huge part of my NYC sound.
CBS SF: I was reading about some of the recordings that you’ve cited as early influences — Coltrane’s Live in Japan, John McLaughlin’s Devotion and the early output of Cream. I get how the latter two artists would affect you as a guitarist, but was wondering about the impact of that more experimental era Coltrane record. Were you drawn towards the more free/fringe end of the jazz spectrum similar to what Sonny Sharrock was doing in the ‘70s?
Jim Campilongo: I liked improvisation — I loved Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s East West, I liked the Allman Brothers, I liked Larry Coryell. And what drew me to that music was that the players would share long improvisations that were long musical stories I found fascinating and riveting. I wouldn’t be able to label it then; it was a journey without labels.
CBS SF: I could be wrong, but it seems in the past you’ve played your Bay Area shows with local musicians that you have long-standing relationships with versus bringing your NYC collaborators. This time you’ve traveled out with your main trio of Josh Dion and Chris Morrissey for shows here and in LA. Did you want to showcase your main group that’s on the new live album?
Jim Campilongo: I’ve been bringing New York musicians to the Bay Area since I moved here in 2002. Although I cherish my alliances with great area musicians like Joe Goldmark and Bobby Black and the 10 Gallon Cats et cetera, and I would like to play with them again. But for the last 16 years, I have been focused on what I play with my fellow musicians in New York City and that’s why I travel with them- They are my musical family and we grow together by collaborating.
CBS SF: Your last studio album — Last Night, This Morning — was something of a return to the kind of modern Western Swing you were doing with the 10 Gallon Cats in SF during the ’90s. Did you want to put out a harder rocking live album that was more representative of what you do onstage every week?
Jim Campilongo: Yes, that was the plan. I felt that Last Night, This Morning was a celebration of a 25-year recording history and I tried to cover some of my earlier stylings. I loved Honeyfingers — who were a group of musicians I recorded it with — and I needed to take advantage of right then and there and capture lightening in a bottle.
I think that’s a great album, if I do say so myself. I also anticipated capturing what Chris Josh and I do live as a follow up. It’s a yin and yang demonstrating my musical palette that can go from Bacharach to Coltrane thanks to the assistance of my fellow players.
CBS SF: You’re playing here with your regular collaborator Nels Cline and he’s on a couple tunes of the new live album. Was there any consideration about doing a full album with him? Or is that something you might pursue in the future?
Jim Campilongo: Yes, I’d love to record a record with Nels! And I’d also like to record a duet record with Luca Benedetti and I’d also like to record a quartet record with a New York guitarist, Grey McMurray. I’m also thinking of recording a solo guitar record- I wish I could put out three records a year, but that’s financially impossible and I don’t want to over satiate anyone who is interested in my music, so I have to call my shots responsibly.
CBS SF: Cline has regularly played the Stone doing more improv/experimental music in NYC. Have you explored that side of the city’s music scene in your time there? Or do you feel like you edge into that territory with your regular gigs?
Jim Campilongo: I do whatever I want wherever I play.
CBS SF: I was really impressed with Grey McMurray at the 55. He struck me as a player in a similar vein as Bill Frisell, but he really has his own voice. How did you end up working with him?
Jim Campilongo: Grey had worked with Chris and Josh and I knew him from that. I saw him play and loved his artistry. Personally I don’t think Grey sounds anything like Bill Frissell. Grey is a totally unique musician and I wouldn’t know who to compare him to.
CBS SF: Are there any established players in New York that you would be particularly interested in playing with?
Jim Campilongo: I’ve always wanted to play with Marc Ribot. But that said, I’ve worked with almost everyone I’ve dreamed of. I do wish I was playing more country music though. I miss that.MORE NEWS: Wild Fan Celebration Erupts Following San Francisco 49ers Last-Second Playoff Win
The Jim Campilongo Trio with special guest Nels Cline play Yoshi’s in Oakland on Tuesday, July 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.