Jim Campilongo was making a name for himself as one of the Bay Area's best guitarists when he moved to New York City in 2002. His inimitable style, described by one wag as "Chet Atkins meets Thelonious Monk," and his ability to wrench unusual sounds out of his instrument without the use of pedals or effects had won him a sterling reputation, especially among fellow musicians, but he was feeling a bit constrained by the San Francisco scene.
"I wanted to play on more albums, play in Europe, and be perceived as an artist, not a sideman," Campilongo says over the phone from his Brooklyn flat. "A lot of clubs had closed, places you could work on your craft, and that really bummed me out. I was going crazy. I was 43, my life was half over, and I wondered what I was going to do next. So I moved, then worried that I'd done something self-destructive. I couldn't sleep at might. I was afraid to spend any money, but I got lucky. I did some SBC commercials and that tided me over."
Campilongo also reconnected with a few other California musicians who had moved to New York, including Lee Alexander, who'd hooked up with a piano player named Norah Jones. Campilongo, Alexander, and Jones discovered a mutual love for country music, which led to Campilongo's lead guitar duties in the Little Willies, a Jones side project that put him on the national radar. Since then, life has been pretty hectic: "This past few days I've done sessions with Jenni Muldaur [daughter of Geoff and Maria], played my regular Monday night gig at the Living Room and a big party on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, opened for Bright Eyes and Gillian Welch [with the Little Willies], given a bunch of guitar lessons, and done a rehearsal/songwriting session with [Italian singer-songwriter] Chiara Civello."
Campilongo was also preparing for the gig that will bring him to Yoshi's next Tuesday to support his latest album Heaven Is Creepy. His music has echoes of Django Reinhardt, Buck Owens, Bach, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and a panoply of folk, blues, jazz, and rock styles. Comped chords, delicate filigreed fills, long quavering sustained notes, and shimmering overtones slide together to produce a deep, moody, impressionistic sound.
The mostly instrumental album Norah Jones and Martha Wainwright sing on two tracks has gotten raves for Campilongo's indefinable guitar style. "I call it country noir," he says. "When I decided to play instrumental music, people told me it was commercial suicide, but when I hear today's pop, the lyrics mostly say 'Buy me, buy me,' or 'I'm so hot you can't touch me.' Instrumentals let you fill in the blanks and interact with the music on your own."
Campilongo played in conventional rock bands before emerging as an instrumental wiz with the Ten Gallon Cats, a cowboy-jazz combo that made three excellent instrumental albums. Before he left for New York, he also cut a "solo" outing, Table for One. "I got some flak for that album," he recalls. "There were no shredding solos. It was a moody, late-night record, but it's still my favorite album. My heart and soul went into it."
When he returns to New York, Campilongo plans to finally look for a proper booking agent. "My music is the most important thing to me and right now I'm wearing too many hats. I'm the bandleader, composer, manager, booking agent, copyright lawyer, and publicist. I also have a paper route in the morning," he deadpans.
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