Photo by JR Delia.

Like chapters in a poetic novel, the 12 tracks on Jim Campilongo’s new Dream Dictionary—his first album since 2010’s Orange—take the listener through a range of emotions. It’s a record full of stylistic twists, turns, and surprises—including the Tele master’s first solo-acoustic recording, a version of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” that more than lives up to its name, and a tasty rendition of Ray Charles’ “Here I Am” that features vocals by longtime friend Norah Jones. One minute, he’s channeling Chet Atkins (“Pie Party”), the next, he’s taking a sideways stroll down a country road (“Nang Nang”), trying to channel opera singer Maria Callas (“The Past Is Looking Brighter and Brighter”), or exploring In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis (“Dream Dictionary,” “Heaven Is Creepy”).

Throughout it all, Campilongo plays like he’s engaging in a long, very personal conversation: It ranges from heated to relaxed, angst-ridden, and even a little flirty—but it’s always fluent, spontaneous and full of nuance, texture, and emotional truth.

Part of that fluency comes from the connection the Bay Area-native has forged with his new New York-based trio, which includes bassist Chris Morrissey (Sara Bareilles, Mark Guilliana’s Beat Music, Taurus) and drummer Josh Dion (Pat Martino, John Medeski, Paris Monster). “As soon as I played with Chris and Josh in about March of 2013, I knew I wanted to make a record,” Campilongo explains. “Our chemistry was so great that I knew it was the beginning stages of a great band.”

“If I’m playing a place where, as soft as I play, it’s really heard—and as loud as I play, it’s really heard—I feel like there’s this whole dynamic journey I can create.”

It’s been a while since Orange came out. Why the long wait between albums?
I’d been waffling about putting out a record since then. I could’ve made an all-acoustic record with Steve Cardenas, and I would’ve liked to make a record with the band Honey Fingers, where I’m playing hot country swing stuff. Then there was another band called High Space that does a sort of Miles Davis style. So technically, I could have made three records since 2009 that I think would've been good albums. But I just didn't want to make them because I didn’t want to pay for them. The way the market is with Spotify and YouTube, it’s really hard to recoup your investment. I mean, I really like YouTube—which definitely has many pluses—but I don't think there are many pluses for Spotify. Right now, the way to earn a living is by playing live.

Photo by Federico Chiesa.

What inspired your approach to Dream Dictionary?
Miles Davis. I’ve been obsessed with listening to him lately. I got both the On the Corner and the In a Silent Way box sets with all the outtakes. I was also listening to Agharta and Pangaea after Pete Cosy died. That influenced me to where I feel like I’m playing more freely. I also revisited some records that have always been part of my DNA in some way: Stuff by Ernest Franklin, Buffalo Springfield, Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, and a lot of Jimi Hendrix.

The performances have a conversational quality to them. You, Chris, and Josh really seem to feed off of one another.
I wanted to record in as comfortable a setting as possible, so we went to Bedford Studios in Brooklyn. There are nice windows there, and we pretty much played live, and I tried to make it sound relaxed. I decided I was going to record as if we were discovering the material fresh. There was a lot of interplay, and a lot of it was improvised. “Manic Depression” is totally improvised—I mean I had no idea what was going to come next. I have never really done that in the context of my own records. It was a bit risky in some ways for me, but I was, like, “The heck with it—this is what I want to do!”

“Manic Depression” could’ve been all about the guitar, but your version highlights the whole band—everyone seems really in the moment.
We did about six takes, and they’re all really different. I try not to overthink when I’m recording—I was just reacting and playing. But prior to doing it, I thought, “What is manic depression?” And I’m not talking about the song I’ve heard since I was 12. I mean, what does manic depression feel like? I also thought about how Jimi Hendrix did “The Star Spangled Banner.” He didn't just go up there and [hums the melody to the “Oh say can you see” part of the U.S. national anthem]. There’s an actual narrative to it. I really like that there’s some payoff—there’s a point where we really started to groove on “Manic Depression.” That was improvised, and you can hear that there’s a thousandth of a second where everyone is, like, “Oh, we’re going there,” and it’s really great. I’m really proud of how I played at that point. It really rocks.

The album has so many different moods. Does your mental approach change from song to song?
This may sound arty-farty, but when I’m recording, sometimes I’ll think, “What’s my motivation here?” like an actor might say. Or it’s like a parody of what actors say [laughs]. Or I’ll think, “What was I feeling when I wrote this particular song?” I try to recapture what I was originally feeling while I’m recording.