I was originally trained as a classical composer. As a free improviser on keyboards and electronics I have also collaborated extensively with dancers and other performance artists.
I began studying shakuhachi formally with Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin in 1978 and was given the rank of Shihan (master) in the Ki Sui An school, along with the professional name Nyokai. I have also studied extensively with Yoshio Kurahashi, and the Nyokai-an dojo is a branch of Kurahashi-sensei's Mujuan school.
I am committed to sharing my knowledge of music with children and adults alike. I often present programs in schools, and I have been an Artist in Residence, adjunct professor, and guest lecturer at many universities.
Some press comments on my music:
"With the carefully placed pauses and the way his breath moves the sound through the shakuhachi, one can sense upon first hearing that Phil James' relationship to music and his surroundings are nothing less than spiritually profound. Whether he is remembering the presence of John Coltrane, the historical significance of his instrument, or simply celebrating the Missouri landscape (frogs included), his playing and compositions are always deeply communicative and highly sensual." — NewMusicBox
“The music is very reflexive, with drones, soothing flute melodies coming across plaintive harmonium flooring and voices heard in the distance. Even the third variation, almost entirely played on turntables, achieves a strange organic state... Phil James succeeds in giving a breath of life to this rich and surprising music.” — François Couture, All Music Guide
“This is an interesting combo of genres: ethnic, trance, minimalism and noise. James plays shakuhachi, harmonium, pedal steel guitar, flute, electronics and more... The flute keeps it from the trance bag, the jangly guitars keep it from being new age, the unpredictable and sparse deep bass (which might be drum) keep the trance from being mindless. That's only the first Variation. The second is a repeating ratchet and thump which sounds like a cross between a mill and stylus stuck in the leadout lockgroove. Variation Three rumbles turntables scratching like the subway with little voices coming out. All feature Native American flute, giving a subversive sweetness to the general noise textures. More than the sum of its parts. Fans of musics ranging from Randy Grief to Niblock and Glenn Branca, Douglas Spotted Eagle and musique concrète might be inclined to dig this one.” —Steve Koenig, La Folia
“Phil James has created sombre ambient music out of the Japanese shakuhachi, harmonium, pedal steel guitar, Native American flute, turntables, electronics and discreet percussion. Instead of bearing titles all six tracks are simply numbered "Variations", although each and everyone of them has its own very distinct character, sharing in common huffing and puffing low drones and adding tastefully overlaid flute, subtle turntablism and in one case, a piano tune which in its context is almost jarringly fanciful. The sparse liner notes state that the third variation features a flute melody credited to Geronimo from the turn of the last century. James displays a patient hand in allowing each track to unfold with grace and dignity and the overall result is a worthy monument to both undying friendship and musical imagination.” — Stephen Fruitman, Motion
"...haunting examples of soundscapes that make you think of the sea, dark nights, fog rolling in from the ocean, far-off lands and then more eerie stuff, chilling, rumbling, echoing and then entering a new dimension where few have dared tread." — Andy Garibaldi, CD Services
"Phil James in First Places performs a beautiful and profound set ranging from the earliest known shakuhachi pieces to an homage to John Coltrane while, at the same time, honoring Missouri's natural soundscape. First Places provides the listener with spiritual nourishment bordering on the sacred." — Stuart Dempster