Two years after Already Gone, Phil James takes a different route and takes you places. The shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese flute) may be the featured instrument on this CD, but it is not the sole star. It shares the stage with the recording locations. James plays in caves and near ponds. He minds his own business -- this is not an exercise in environmental interaction -- but the settings that inspire him are made available and understandable to the listener. And when you play traditional Zen pieces on shakuhachi, a flute that requires from the musician to be particularly attuned to his or her own breathing, the setting plays an important part in the level of interiority he or she can achieve. "Kyorei" (described by James as the oldest known shakuhachi piece) and the two "Cave Song" improvisations are inhabited by dripping water and the natural echo of the cave. In "Journeys With Frogs," over a dozen species of batrachians provide the improviser with a lush buzzing drone. More playful without loosing its meditative character, this piece provides the disc's highlight. "Father John," which begins and concludes the set, is dedicated to John Coltrane, who, it appears, studied shakuhachi in his last years. Here James bends the tradition to give to his breaths a jazzy inflection. The sound of this flute is always a peace offering, an occasion to reach back to a spiritual state of existence. First Places provides a self-contained listening experience. James is not the best shakuhachi player on the planet, but he sure knows how to put a disc together.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture