Among a certain subset of guitar aficionados, Jim Campilongo’s guitar is almost as revered as he is. It’s a 1959 Fender Telecaster, which makes it a treasure by anyone’s standards, but it’s especially rare because it came from the factory with the so-called top-loading bridge, a cost-cutting innovation that lasted for only a few months. Once reviled, top-loading Telecasters are now coveted by some players, primarily because the reduced string tension…
Well, I could go on.
But I won’t, because I suspect I’m boring you, and I know Campilongo’s eyes are rolling. He’s a player’s player, both as a sideman with singers like Norah Jones and Martha Wainwright and as a bandleader, but he’s also the least geeky of guitar geeks.
“My girlfriend knows more about guitars than I do,” he tells the Straight, on the line from his Brooklyn home. “A guitar builder came over—this was about six months ago—and wanted to design a guitar with me, and I was being a total bimbo. And my girlfriend said, ‘You know, Jim, I think you’d like a mahogany body with a maple neck, because the mahogany’s a little warmer.’ I mean, she knew way more than I did, and it was really helpful. So is that kind of ignorance useful? No, it isn’t. But I think because of it, I’m really into playing.”
He laughs, and goes deeper into confessional mode. “For years, I’ve gone to see a band, and the next day people say ‘Hey, what did the guitar player play? What kind of guitar?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’ I actually don’t know! I remember his body language, I remember the music, I even remember his shoes. Maybe I liked his shoes. But I don’t remember the guitar he played.”
Ignorance, in this case, is bliss, for Campilongo and for his listeners. He doesn’t have to fret over whether the volume knob on his ’59 has been changed for a later reproduction, and we get to bask in his real, genre-defying mastery. Campilongo’s sound is rooted in the Telecaster twang of late western swing, and the quartet he’s bringing to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, the Brooklynites, is a loose offshoot of another band dedicated to that repertoire. But to that mix he brings something of Jeff Beck’s sonic adventure and Bill Frisell’s harmonic sophistication—and, even more importantly, he devotes the time he doesn’t spend geeking out on gear to improving his chops.
“I’m trying for artistry,” he says, “but I always have my little finger in some aesthetic that’s people-pleasing—as I would if I had someone over for dinner. And this isn’t a sellout thing: if I have people over for dinner, I know what I’m going to make, I put out dishes, and I try to be a nice host. And I feel that way about music, too.”
Jim Campilongo & the Brooklynites play the West Vancouver Memorial Library on Friday (June 23), and a 2:15 p.m. matinee at the Downtown Stage on Sunday (June 25), both as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.