As the strictures of advanced contemporary music continue to loosen, more improvisers are taking advantage of the freedom to experiment. A parallel outgrowth is the number of players of almost any instrument willing to nakedly expose their skills in all solo sessions. Commonplace doesn’t mean accomplished however. Still the best dates, such as the CDs cited here, offer original perspectives on the sounds of an individual instrument.

waxman 01 lauzierMontreal’s Philippe Lauzier used three studios to record the 12 tracks which make up Transparence (Schraum 18, as well as coming up with different strategies for different instruments. Heard on bass and half-bass [sic] clarinet, alto and soprano saxophones plus motorized bells, he uses amplification, feedback and multitracking to express his unique ideas. Geyser for instance reimagines the bass clarinet as hollow tube and percussion, swallowing and expelling pure air as he depresses the keys. Au-dessus on the other hand magnifies the soprano saxophone’s usually ethereal qualities into overlapping vibrations, with the next commencing before the previous one has died away. In contrast, alto saxophone feedback on L’object trouvé literally does as defined, managing to direct the echoes back into the horn’s body tube while making each finger motion and breath transparent. The audacity of Lauzier’s skill is most clearly delineated on En-dessous. Here the multitracking of four bass clarinets creates more variety among the timbres he exhales, but the intertwined and affiliated trills produced relate without question to the multiphonics he invented for a single horn.

waxman 02 dragonnatWith only three valves instead of many keys, the trumpet is more difficult to put into a solo setting. But Natsuki Tamura does so memorably on Dragon Nat (Libra Records 101-032 During the course of eight instant compositions he manages to probe the farthest reaches of the trumpet’s range while subtly maintaining a pleasing, near-lyrical continuum. Occasionally sounding as if he’s turning the instrument inside out for maximum metallic vibrations, he also employs half-valve effects and mouthpiece osculations. Rubato and agitated, his glissandi are often further segmented as they move from growling frog-like ribbits to hummingbird crying flimsiness. Most characteristic of the tracks is the appropriately named Dialogue where he vocalizes Daffy Duck-like nonsense syllables and infant cries and shakes bells for auxiliary colours. Before a sodden, open-horn ending that relates to the track’s folksy head, he sneaks in a reference to Monk’s Dream. Elsewhere In Berlin, In September demonstrates Tamura’s perfect control as the narrative becomes successively louder, softer, faster and slower without losing its thematic thread. Within, its delicate story telling references abound, not only to muted mid-1950s Miles Davis-like timbres but to the Burt Bacharach melody for A House Is Not a Home.

waxman 03 mcpheeWhile solo sessions have multiplied over the past few years, one person who was experimenting with the singular form as long ago as 1976 is multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. Sonic Elements (Clean Feed CF278 CD is his most recent set in that genre. Demonstrating the breadth of his skill, he divides this 41-minute live set in half, improvising on pocket trumpet in honour of Don Cherry at the beginning, and concluding with a salute to Ornette Coleman on alto saxophone. That said McPhee doesn’t replicate any Coleman or Cherry licks during the performance. Instead he creates a distinctive sound picture of each individual. With Wind-Water McPhee’s Cherry snapshot is built up from plain air pops, watery growls and spiralling grace notes. When the output swerves into tonality a mellow melody appears only to be deconstructed with staccato guffaws, sharp whistles and vocal murmurs. An extended final sequence is balanced with vocal cries and whispers that help illuminate the dedicatee’s heartfelt struggle for peace. Meanwhile, if anything Earth/Fire-Old Eyes proves that Coleman’s purported wild experimentation is based on the bedrock of jazz: blues and work songs. Using maximum emotionalism and minimal notes here, the saxophonist’s initial tongue slaps and altissimo cries give way to a sequence which includes foot-stomping percussiveness and a theme that could practically be a pre-Emancipation song of celebration. As the countrified line is hardened, tremolo echoes, reminiscent of primitive bagpipe or concertina airs confirm this connection. The climax occurs as sharp, staccato interjections and the composition’s sweet, yearning textures become one and the same.

waxman 04 sommerAnother solo suite of tributes is Dedications (Intakt CD 224, where Günter Baby Sommer uses a collection of drums and percussion instruments to honour his influences and contemporaries. With humour, sensitivity, cleverness and spoken passages mostly in English, Sommer displays the skills that enabled him to build an international reputation while living in pre-unification East Germany. He also pulls off the feat of emulating aspects of the other drummers’ styles while staying true to his own. For instance the wood block clip clops and bass drum wallops which characterized the playing of Baby Dodds, from whom he received his nickname, is filtered through modern sensibility on Von Baby zu Baby, as he bends notes alongside a linear motion. Honouring Han Bennink during Harmonisches Gerassel für Han, he adds offbeat rhythms, tuned bell ringing, Eastern-styled beats and a touch of vocalizing without ever losing the basic jazz rhythm. Saluting Art Blakey on Art Goes Art, Sommer tootles an ocarina and a shawm to underline the linkage between Blakey’s proletarian Pittsburgh roots and the East German working class. In between showcasing characteristic Blakey-like press rolls and vamps, Sommer’s lilting humour shines through, especially when he produces a march beat that’s as much Albert Ayler as agit-prop. Selfportrait is a culmination of all this. Weaving a polyrhythmic spell, almost without pause, he exposes African wooden slit drum tones, sophisticated modern jazz on the snares plus laughs, whoops and some German explanation as he confirms his own inclusion in this percussion pantheon.

waxman 05 violinoPicking up a different thread, Italian Emanuele Parrini confirms the solo violin’s viability in his nine-part Viaggio al Centro del Violino (Rudi Records RRJ1015 rudirecords,com), although he cheats afterwards, adding four short melodic duets with violist Paolo Botti. Parrini’s suite is organically organized, flowing from exposition to conclusion and maintaining a continuum while showcasing a case full of extended techniques. After establishing the parameters of the romantically tinged theme with sweeping echoes and dynamic stops, Parrini deliberately sets out to sabotage them on Abstract No. 1, alternating mandolin-like picking with sympathetic four-string emphasis that takes on pastoral qualities by the following track. His improvising contains too many jagged bent notes to be truly folkloric however, and midway through with the bow pressuring four strings simultaneously, the pastoral melancholy of Requiem for L.J. gives way to the rapid dynamism of Black Violin with its spiccato skips, and climaxes with Blues P. No more a standard blues than Parrini is Stephane Grappelli, his dexterity suggests a blues feeling, but with a particularly Italian cast. Scratching his way from the fiddle’s scroll to its tip, the resulting multiphonics are emotional, rhythmic and satisfyingly conclusive.

Viaggio al Centro del Violino translates as Journey to the Center of the Violin in English. The phrase aptly describes how Parrini has exposed the singular musicality of his instrument. Each of these discs does the same in a similar fashion.

broomer 01 drumhellerDrumheller is a Toronto-based quintet, but it turns out visionary, genre-bending music with wit and skill worthy of Amsterdam origins. That openness to play and variety is evident throughout Sometimes Machine (Barnyard Records BR0333, including guitarist Eric Chenaux’s opening “Alabama UK,” suspended between Latin and New Orleans rhythms; the Ellingtonian richness achieved in drummer Nick Fraser’s “Sketch #8”; and alto saxophonist Brodie West’s “Untitlement,“ which begins with a melody that might have fallen out of the history of minstrelsy. The musicians bring a creative joy and spontaneity to each other’s tunes, constantly finding new dimensions in the dialogue. Chenaux’s weirdly arrhythmic solo on bassist Rob Clutton’s “Parc Lineaire” suggests folklore from another world, while trombonist Doug Tielli combines a bending, quavering line with circular breathing on Fraser’s otherwise sprightly “Sketch #16” in a similarly original way.

broomer 02 lerner live in madridMontreal-born, Toronto-resident pianist Marilyn Lerner has a long-established reputation in jazz, improvised music and klezmer, and a growing international profile that includes a co-operative trio with New York-based bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. Their latest release is Live in Madrid (Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1247 It’s entirely improvised, with the drive of great free jazz, as alive with light and shadow as Lerner’s jacket photo of Madrid, with its mysterious depths, narrow, curving streets and bristling antennae. The concert brims with passion and energy: the dense counterpoint of “Intentions Woven”; the rich shifting textures of the 34-minute “Elegia por A.J.C.;” from its opening chords strummed on the piano strings to the final unaccompanied keyboard tremolos; and the spare luminous tones that open “Ode to Orujo.” Each musician is wholly engaged in this complex, ongoing dialogue, whether it’s Filiano’s pulsing bass lines and upper register arco explorations or Grassi’s thunderous polyrhythms and sometimes playful sound effects.

broomer 03 mike downesWhile Lerner and company work happily without predetermined materials, it’s composition that distinguishes another piano trio led by bassist/composer Mike Downes. On Ripple Effect (Addo Records AJR017, Downes presents subtle, compelling pieces that develop concentrated, evocative moods through slightly evasive melodies and moody harmonies, and his partners here, pianist Robi Botos and drummer Ethan Ardelli, seem inspired to bring every nuance to life. The sole standard included, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” gains a contrasting ostinato that seems to enhance the performance’s free-flowing swing, while Downes’ emotionally direct, profoundly lyrical bass work comes to the fore on “So Maki Sum Se Rodila,” a traditional Macedonian song, and on “Campfire Waltz,” an unaccompanied solo. Guitarist Ted Quinlan’s guest appearance on the title track is a highlight, while the trio achieves a welling luminosity on “Two Sides of a Coin.”

broomer 04 christine jensenComposer and saxophonist Christine Jensen presents her works in a far larger forum: her Jazz Orchestra sometimes stretches to over 20 players on Habitat (Justin Time JTR-8583-2, taking in many of Montreal’s finest musicians. These are ambitious works, in theme and duration as well as scale: “Tumbledown,” inspired by the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, takes its reflective tone from happier early visits, while the extended “Nishiyuu” commemorates the 1500-kilometre trek of six Cree youths to protest living conditions for First Nations people. Whether it’s the movement of history, the earth, wind, traffic or a Peruvian rhythm that inspires her, there’s grandeur and nobility in Jensen’s writing, enhanced here by the lustre of up to a dozen brass and outstanding soloists in trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and saxophonists Joel Miller, Chet Doxas and Samuel Blais.

broomer 05 bill mcbirnieThe flute and the Hammond B-3 organ entered jazz around the same time, back in the 1950s, but they entered from different directions — the flute from West coast cool and Latin music, the organ from soul and funk. The instruments are heard together throughout flute player Bill McBirnie’s Find Your Place (Extreme Flute EF06, with Bernie Senensky at the Hammond keyboard and drummer Anthony Michelli completing the trio. While most jazz flute players have been doubling saxophonists, McBirnie is a rarity, a musician whose dedication to the flute has shaped his musical voice. It’s apparent throughout the CD, with McBirnie demonstrating the fluent lines, subtle rhythmic inflections and timbral shifts that you’re more apt to hear on a saxophone. The repertoire mixes hard bop, bossa nova, Latin rhythms and gospel, even going as far afield as the early jazz classic “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” It’s all delivered with infectious swing and a cheerful effervescence. 

Exceptional CDs You May
Not Know About

As mass media continues to promote music as another instantly consumed product, the likelihood of new sounds — or even older ones — being ignored because they don’t fit the style of the moment intensifies. This is especially true when it comes to improvised music. But with the holiday season looming, more committed listeners may be seeking gifts for those who appreciate challenge rather than comfort in their music. Here are some CDs from 2013 that fit the bill. They include ones by established players, younger stylists plus important reissues.

waxman 01 live at mayaAnyone who claims that experimental music lacks emotion must hear Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton Live at Maya Recordings Festival (NoBusiness NBCD 55 A working trio since 1980, tenor saxophonist Parker, bassist Guy and drummer Lytton invigorate this live set with the combination of precision and passion reminiscent of the most accomplished string quartet performance. Even when he isn’t displaying his characteristic circular-breathed multiphonics, Parker is able to prod showpieces like “Obsidian” and “Gabbro” to slow-boiling intensity. Furthermore his instantly identifiable sound can be relaxed without sacrificing emotion. The bassist’s supple finger movements transcend timekeeping with guitar-like facility below the bridge and other extremities, while Lytton’s shuffles and timed rimshots oppose or connect with either or both of the others’ timbres for maximum satisfying cohesion.

waxman 02 plumeA decade younger than Parker, John Butcher has refined extended saxophone techniques further. Paired with drummer Tony Buck and either guitarist Burkhard Stangl or pianist Magda Mayas, Plume (Unsounds 35 demonstrates that even when stripped of beat and melody unmatched vibrancy remains. Although guitar strums and drum resonance satisfactorily complement Butcher’s narratives which replicate bird chirps and pinched reed sucking, it’s “Vellum,” the piano/drum/sax interface, that’s the stunner. As Buck roughly strokes drum tops to equate cicada-like textures or subtle accents with bell-tree shakes, Mayas’ stopped piano keys and internal string plucks provide a sinewy challenge to Butcher’s klaxon-like tones. When the piano soundboard shakes and string vibrations intensify excitement, the saxophonist responds with amplified growls and snorts and the drummer with heartbeat-like thumps. Moving forward chromatically, the mood is intensified with an undercurrent of restrained power. Finally as Mayas’ rummaging in the piano’s innards gives way to pummelling strokes and Butcher’s tongue slaps are replaced by violent staccato trills, parallel release is achieved.

waxman 03 lingeThen same age as Butcher, French soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda has also refined and extended Parker’s tonal experiments. Linge (Umlaut Records umfrcd 07 was recorded in an old barn in Eastern France to organically maximize the spatial properties during his duet with clarinetist Joris Rühl (b.1982). As they work their way through seven sequences, what’s produced are distinctive improvisations that are as frequently created from parallel blowing as intermingled timbres. Concentrated in the highest register of the sound spectrum an amazing multiplicity of tones is still heard. Manipulating air currents as much as reed and key properties, the two attain such a harmonic level that there are points where the sounds are identical to those of a boys’ choir. Other times masticating reed- and tongue-popping extrusions produce a cubist-like perspective. Staccato chirps, flatline blowing and gravelly motions are all present. Only on the penultimate track are individual traits identifiable as Doneda concentrates on split-tone buzzing and Rühl on lyrical and communicative textures. 

waxman 04 lori freedmanAnother reed experimenter is Montreal-based clarinetist Lori Freedman, whose seven improvisations on On No On (Mode Avant 16 are with percussionist John Heward. Related to the cerebral texture and timbre experiments of Butcher/Buck or Parker/Lytton, there’s no chordal instrument present to smooth the interface. The chief pleasure of these tracks is noting the substance of Freedman’s reed flurries and the strategies Heward pulls from his kit to parry her thrusts. Using his palms as often as sticks, Heward’s whacks or rolls are singular replies to the reed solos which frequently extend like run-on sentences, adding violent or narrowed projections to make a point. Marimba-like reverberations are called into play on those rare occasions when Freedman’s output turns legato. Overall while technical prowess is the point, by the final “Improvisation 7,” the narrative turns from squeaks and shudders to an almost jaunty melodiousness.

waxman 05 mitchell fictionThis sort of intense improvising also involves the piano, as Philadelphia’s Matt Mitchell proves with Fiction (Pi Recordings PI 50 Mitchell’s approach is linear as well as forceful, and with the help of Ches Smith, who plays drums, percussion and vibraphone, the 15 tracks showcase a rapprochement between cerebral improvisation and the power of rock-influenced beats. Coming across like a super-powered mixture of Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor, Mitchell’s slashing lines show that he has a thorough grounding in contemporary jazz pianism, yet can slither note clusters into the furthest nooks of the keyboard if need be. On a track like “Dadaist Flu” he appears to output separate lines with either hand; while others, like “Veins” paste abstraction onto the song form. The extended “Action Field” is a microcosm of his work, shaped like an intermezzo yet with the same intensity in pacing as the rest of the CD. If Mitchell’s playing is sometimes overwhelming and pressured, he’ll likely soon learn to moderate his gifts. He was born in 1975.

waxman 06 kidd jordanStill, age makes little difference in creating exceptional music. No better proof is A Night in November Live in New Orleans (Valid Records VR-1015, featuring Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, 20 years Mitchell’s senior, and Big Easy saxophonist Kidd Jordan (b.1935). Indefatigable in his solos and with the energy of players one-third his age, the saxophonist is familiar enough with the tradition to deconstruct it at will, as he demonstrates on “Wade in the Water.” At the same time, as someone who has been probing music’s limits since the 1960s Jordan can whip any timbres into a cohesive whole with equal emphasis on brain and heart. Take the tracks from “Tenor and Drums.” As Drake matches his narrative with cymbal clanks and drum bumps, Jordan outputs two theme variations, one moderato and flowing, the other quirky and altissimo. Rather than upsetting a consistent narrative, he then constructs a new exposition from shrill tones.

waxman 07 paul bleyFree-form improvisation can be understated and subtle as well as loud. The pianist who initially melded song form and abstraction was Montreal-born Paul Bley as the classic 1965 Closer (ESP-Disk ESP 1021 demonstrates.  Newly remastered, the reissue displays with more clarity the pianist’s cleverly shaped and precisely accented tones, Barry Altschul’s nuanced drum accompaniment and the barely there strokes from Steve Swallow’s bass. One marvel is how the pieces are succinctly defined whether from the burrowing keyboard runs and rat-tat-tat drums that advance “Batterie” or from each instrument’s perfect balance on “Ida Lupino.” A factoid: In addition to “Ida Lupino” Bley’s then-wife Carla Bley wrote six of the remaining nine tracks; his next wife, Annette Peacock, wrote the album’s final track, “Cartoon.”  

waxman 08 brotherhood breathMore than tripling the number of players and recorded in 1977, another reissue, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath Procession: Live at Toulouse (Ogun OGCD 40 celebrates an 11-piece band that excitedly added world music currents to advanced jazz. That because the group was split between self-exiled South Africans and experimenting British improvisers. Expanded with three new tracks, this CD includes Evan Parker among the saxes, but the impassioned ballad playing and booming rugged vibrations he and alto saxophonists Mike Osborne and Dudu Pukwana play are in a different sonic zone. Swaying with Africanized rhythms tracks like “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me”… and “Kwhalo” are a delight. Plus the craftiness of the arrangements is such that sounds are both lilting and grounded in technical mastery. Adding just the bare minimum of notes to direct the band like a Cape Town Count Basie, McGregor, plus bassists Johnny Dyanni and Harry Miller plus drummer Louis Moholo – South Africans all – effortlessly induce the beat. But at the same time stimulating horn vamps pull back enough so that notable chases between trumpet triplets and slippery reed extensions are clearly heard.

06 jazz 01 road tripRoad*Trip
Mike McGinnis+9           
RKM Music RKM 014 (

Composer of scores that reflected his twin careers as an academic and notated music composer plus a part-time improvising clarinetist – most notably with his Mills College friend Dave Brubeck – Seattle-based William O. (Bill) Smith (b.1926) gets his just due with this perceptive CD. Organized by young clarinetist Mike McGinnis (b.1973) for his own nine-piece ensemble, the band not only turns in an authoritative version of Smith’s seminal three-movement Concerto for Clarinet and Combo, from 1956, but couples it with McGinnis’ own recently composed Road*Trip for Clarinet & Nine Players

For a start the ensemble’s reading of the concerto proves that unlike some other jazz-and-classical- mixing Third Streamers, Smith certainly was able to swing. As the stimulating theme modulates through big band harmonic flourishes plus carefully stacked orchestral motifs that take advantage of French horn and trombone sonorities, it references the big band arrangements of the likes of Gerry Mulligan as much as Darius Milhaud, with whom Smith and Brubeck studied. Particularly affecting is the conclusion of the second movement when the others play underlying basso timbres as McGinnis’ spiky lines move upwards. Crucially, score fidelity doesn’t stop the program from being a fingersnapper. By its conclusion admiration is as much for the clarinetist negotiating difficult cadenzas a cappella as for the punchy writing.

By definition more modern, Road*Trip’s performance is a bit murkier and more mellow. At the same time McGinnis’ clean solo execution – sometimes staccato and unaccompanied – plus the rubato interpretation of the initial theme by the entire group sensibly reflects Smith’s pioneering work. Here hornist Justin Mullens’ reflective bleats, trumpeter Jeff Hermanson’s plunger timbres and pianist Jacob Sacks’ supportive comping join with drummer Vinnie Sperazza’s measured beats to concentrate accelerating pressure onto the unrolling narrative. With the band’s ululating tonal shifts framing the clarinetist’s flutter-tongued gymnastics, the sense of achievement that follows the suite’s resolution into an advanced swing structure also makes it one road trip worth taking.


05 jazz 01 reflections u of tReflections
Mike Murley; University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra; Gordon Foote
U of T Jazz

Recorded April 8 and 9, 2013 at Revolution Recording Studios, Toronto.

Everybody forgets about the arranger. For example jazz enthusiasts know about the Thelonious Monk big band concert in 1963, but how many know or care that arrangements for much of that great music were by Hal Overton. Or that the landmark recording by Basie of “April In Paris” was arranged by Wild Bill Davis?

The reason for this preamble is that on listening to this album I realized just how essential the arrangements are; so hats off to Mike Murley, Terry Promane, Jef Deegan and John MacLeod who lay down the rich layers of sound which add so much to the original compositions of Mike Murley. If you listen carefully to the final track, “Can’t You See,” you might just recognize the chord changes of “It’s You Or No One.” Murley is the featured soloist displaying his usual formidable talent along with members of the U of T Jazz Orchestra. I am constantly amazed at the technical proficiency of so many of today’s young musicians, talents that are amply demonstrated on this recording, with seven members of the orchestra sharing solo honours with Murley.

The CD will be available through Indie Pool, Amazon and will have distribution on iTunes.

05 jazz 03 don naduriakLive at Musideum
Don Naduriak and Xavierjazz

Don Naduriak piano, Bill McBirnie flute, Russ Little trombone, Duncan Hopkins bass, Joaquin Hidalgo drums. All compositions and arrangements by Don Naduriak.

Don Naduriak has been active in establishing Latin music in Canada with his bands Salsa Con Clave and his current group Xavierjazz. This CD was recorded before an audience at the Musideum. For those of you who are not familiar with the venue, created by composer Donald Quan, it is quite unlike any other in that it is also a retail store situated in downtown Toronto at Richmond and Spadina and stocked with rare and unusual instruments. As a venue it is unique and as a store it is certainly worth visiting even if there is no performance scheduled.

Now to the CD. If you like your music Latin, this is for you. The two horn players handle the ensemble passages fluently and those of you who are familiar with the playing of Russ Little and Bill McBirnie know that the solo department is in good hands. That said, one of the most enjoyable tracks for me, “Big Joe Beam” — nice pun — is a feature for Don Naduriak. This is music performed by gifted artists who are very much at home in the genre and is well worth a listen.

05 jazz 02 michele meleDream
Michele Mele
Independent GKM 1001

In her second inspired collaboration with producer Greg Kavanagh, luminous vocalist and contemporary jazz composer Michele Mele has once again created a recording of original music that is as accessible, captivating and refreshing as a perfect spring day. Mele’s life is her musical canvas, and she allows her clever lyrics and delightfully contagious melodic lines to give us a glimpse into her most intimate feelings — and those relatable, human emotions are consistently rendered with purity, honesty and high musicality.

Dream has been expertly produced and arranged by Kavanagh, and Mele has surrounded herself with a stellar cast that includes trumpet/flugelhorn icon Guido Basso, piano genius Robbi Botos and first-call saxophonist John Johnson. Although Mele never panders to us with over-trodden standards or gratuitous scat singing, she is a serious jazz composer, lyricist and vocalist who simply prefers to colour outside the lines a wee bit — not unlike Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Blossom Dearie or Mose Allison.

Standout tracks include the title song, which lures the listener directly into Mele’s beautiful “dream” — lulled along by the sinewy, rich saxophone of Johnson, Botos’ crystalline piano work and Mele’s sensual and swinging signature vocal sound. The great Guido Basso also lends his own special magic to the CD, particularly on the track “The More” — sung in English, Spanish and French by the multilingual Mele. Also of note are the touching compositions, “Intimacy,” which is breathtakingly beautiful and features a heartrending lyric, and also the witty “Anti-Magiana,” which utilizes intricate Latin rhythms expertly played by brothers Lew and John Mele on bass and drums, as well as richly layered vocal nuances.

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