2105-MainlyMostly.jpgCutting through the huge sound of the horns behind him, Martin Loomer plays the appropriate chords in the appropriate order on his electric guitar, laying down the time as authoritatively as any drummer. He wears a contagious grin and what looks to me like a bright orange jumpsuit. Which is super cool. If there’s anything I admire, it’s a loud outfit, and there are few outfits louder than a bright orange jumpsuit.

Martin Loomer’s Orange Devils have a monthly gig, on the second Monday of every month, at The Monarch Tavern. They play music by big bands of the 1930s and 40s, like those led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and more, with skill and authenticity.

And who better to bring these charts to life than someone who makes his living as a music copyist?

I first became aware of Loomer through the Orange Devils’ vocalist Rita di Ghent about three years ago – almost to the day – at the end of January 2013. Since then, I’ve chased down the Orange Devils, and Loomer himself, attended several of their gigs and bombarded him with questions, as you do with those more experienced in your field.

I guess I must have asked the maximum number of questions he could answer at a gig or on Facebook, because he eventually invited me and a friend to come to his house to talk about composing and arranging. We convened in his living room, me, my friend, Loomer, his wife Karen, their cats, and a tray of muffins and tea, and we talked about a lot: family, education, cartoons and video games and, even at points, music.

Once we migrated from the living room, Loomer showed us his score collection, which might be the largest number of scores I’ve ever seen in one room, music libraries included. This was a long while ago, but one thing I remember clearly is marvelling at how messy Duke Ellington’s handwriting was.

The Orange Devils combine Loomer's encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire with the expertise of those sharing the bandstand with him: people like John McLeod, William Carn, and Richard Whiteman  (including, up until recently, the late Dr. Kira Payne who passed away on January 2: Payne doubled flawlessly both on alto and tenor saxophones, and as a musician and an accomplished M.D.; she is missed by the community). Go hear this band with no skepticism. Just go. I have no doubt you will like it.

Turbo Street: Another fairly large band – as distinct from a big band – I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to is Turbo Street Funk. If you don’t know them by name, you might recognize them from their busking days on major street corners around the downtown core, including Queen and Spadina, Bay and Bloor and so on. The band plays a combination of original tunes and pop standards, modern and otherwise, tightly arranged and performed by recent graduates of the big three music schools in the city. Turbo Street Funk will be bringing their outdoor dance party indoors on February 9 at Fat City Blues.

This, friends, is the month when the city begins to thaw. Or, it will be if there is any justice in the world. Come out and celebrate. With any luck, I’ll see you in the clubs. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

Mainly Mostly 1Until this autumn, I’d never been to Grossman’s Tavern for a show. Sure, I’d wandered in a few times in the middle of the day, and heard a song or two if a band happened to be playing. But I’d never made plans with people to go to Grossman’s and make a night of it.

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, I was wandering in Chinatown and I walked into Grossman’s to find a band packing up their stuff. I asked the musician who seemed the least in a hurry whether there would be more music tonight. He said another band, hosting a blues jam, would be starting in an hour.

So, for an hour I sat alone in Grossman’s, looking around, inadvertently eavesdropping, and sending copy-and-pasted text messages to anyone I thought might be interested: “blues @ grossman’s? bring your ax.” Grossman’s is, like most establishments in Chinatown, completely unpretentious. The sign above the Spadina Avenue entrance is unassuming and easy to miss. The dimly lit room is decorated with posters and photos depicting performers who have played at Grossman’s, and little else. The food is standard pub fare, with no fancy additions or inventive names. The prices are downright affordable. I believe the menu states the total after tax. (I swear they’re not paying me to write this.)

Brian Cober led the 10pm National Blues Jam from the guitar, although the drummer, whose full name I never got, also seemed to have a great deal of sway. The bass player appeared to be a guest. Cober shouted form at the other members of the band, indicating stop time, dynamic shifts and chord changes. Of course, blues tunes generally draw on established conventions, so there was no danger of a train wreck. Had I not been watching, I would have assumed that this group had been playing together for years.

Of those I texted, two showed up. At peak hours, it seemed everyone was a regular but us three. They all knew the protocol, the repertoire and the people. We, huddled in the corner as a little pocket of blues jam novices, played it by ear. One of the two people I drew was a trombonist, and once he saw a bari sax player go up without being called, he did the same (after speaking to a member of the house band at intermission, of course). When I was called up to join the band on the drums, they called tunes I’d never heard before. I know jazz standards; I do not know blues standards. But again, with fairly simple forms, I caught on quick and had a ton of fun. I took a mental note. To do: learn blues repertoire.

One of my friends told me afterwards that they had a Dixieland jam on Saturdays, and that it was poppin’. So, I went; and, oh my goodness, it popped so much. I have rarely seen so many people in a jazz club – and never for a weekly thing. Residency gigs and the like are often, too often, sparsely attended. This jam, on the other hand, was full almost to the point of being a fire hazard. Usually, when I see a jazz club that full, it’s for a trendy band that attracts people of one age group almost exclusively. But here, there were quite literally toddlers and octogenarians on the same dance floor. The best thing about the jam was its overwhelming and palpable positivity. Nobody was isolated from anyone. Everyone danced together. Unprompted, folks introduced themselves to me. One woman was putting her index finger on people’s heads and spinning them like tops.

The band was authentic, as far as I could tell. I’m not a Dixieland scholar – which made it a little intimidating when I was called up. Patrick Tevlin, the leader of the house band, the Happy Pals, asked me quite abruptly before I came on stage: “You ever play old style?” I gave him the shortest honest answer that I could: “I can.” I was fairly confident that if I kept it simple, I could get across the vibe that I’d heard on records and shows but never really steeped myself in. I made another mental note. To do: listen to more “old style.”

Tevlin sits in a chair in the centre of the stage with his horn and mic within reach, horn players and guitarists seated on either side. Charismatic and relaxed, he sings the tunes like he was born singing them. When he introduced the band, he included the names of guests. It’s apparent that he thinks of the Happy Pals as a big, ever-expanding family.

The jam culminated in a parade of musicians – with the house rhythm section still on the stage, playing the changes to When the Saints Go Marching In, the horn players – guests included – marched in a circle around the venue. People moved out of the way as they cheered and sang along.

The Happy Pals Dixieland Jazz Jam has been happening at Grossman’s every Saturday for more than 45 years, and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping - certainly not this month. So come on down! Bring an instrument! Just...don’t expect to find a seat. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

This past September, The WholeNote celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert/party at the newly renovated Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Rarely passing up an opportunity to hear live music for free, and absolutely never turning down a good excuse to wear a suit and tie, I reserved my seats very quickly. It was great. There was a diverse program, lots of good humour, and perhaps most importantly cake.

I remember turning to my plus-one after a lot of the performances and saying “Okay, that was my favourite.” Some highlights include:

Mary Lou Fallis, who did a great job co-hosting the event with WholeNote publisher David Perlman, sang a hilarious song, listed in the program as Tone Deaf, in which the narrator goes on about her musical ineptitude, pokes fun at herself and punctuates phrases with deliberately off-key notes. It’s the tiniest bit ironic that while singing about an inability to distinguish pitches, Fallis demonstrates a very finely tuned command of pitch by nailing those “off” notes so perfectly imperfectly.

The pianist Christina Petrowska-Quilico paid tribute to renowned violinist and educator Jacques Israelievitch, who passed away from lung cancer three short weeks earlier, by playing a quick and upbeat piece of music, Glass Houses (5) by Anne Southam because, as she told it, the “always on” Israelievitch never wanted to play things slow (or, more accurately, below performance tempo), even in sight-reading sessions, and “because he would have liked it.”

The program also included some jazz. During the second set, as Sophia Perlman, Julie Michels and Adrean Farrugia approached the stage, I nudged my friend and said, “This is definitely going to be my favourite.” I had said before that Sophia Perlman was my favourite jazz singer in the city and then quickly corrected myself. “One of my favourites. Top five.”

The finale of the anniversary celebration invited the participation of the audience. A bunch of people with conducting experience came on stage, divided the audience into sections, and conducted each respective section in a rendition of the round Music Alone Shall Live, while Mary Lou Fallis accompanied us on the piano. “All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, music alone shall live, never to die.”

The song is true. If not literally, then in some other way. Music may not survive the heat death of the universe, but it is transcendent and universal. It has existed since before recorded history and it – or at least evidence of it – will exist after our species has gone extinct. It could have been my imagination, or the nature of the music, or the elevation of the stage, or just the fact that we were in a church, but for me, it was a reverent moment. There was no dancing or even standing (excepting the conductors). Only a bunch of people simultaneously expressing a belief we all share, and which none of us takes lightly.

Sophia PerlmanSophia Perlman: Vocal diamonds. Earlier that week I had gone to the Reservoir Lounge, a venue with less light, more food, and a louder audience, to hear Sophia Perlman. Accompanied by Farrugia on piano, the band also included Richard Underhill on alto sax, Jeff Halischuk on the drums and Mike Carson on bass. It was a marvellous show. The finale of the night, a cover of Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, complete with vocal harmony from the band also invited audience participation. Before the night was over, everyone was on their feet. Most people danced. I’m not one for dancing, but I couldn’t sit for it. I had to sway.

The music aside, the setting was different. The stage was less elevated. No one was in formal attire. Most people were drunk (I was not) and at times willing to talk over the band (also not I) – which I think made it all the more meaningful and beautiful when the audience did choose to hand over their attention to the musicians on stage. “Ta na na, Ta na na na” is not quite the statement that “music alone shall live, never to die” is. Nonetheless it lifted in a similar way to the round in the church. So in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the words. Maybe it was the joy of making music with other people.

For the aforementioned jazz singer, Sophia Perlman, a large part of the joy of making music – specifically improvised music – with other people is the spontaneity of it. Jazz musicians aren’t known for their creative inflexibility or physical tension, but even in this idiom you will rarely see someone as loose, relaxed, comfortable on stage and comfortable in her skin as Perlman is.

She has clearly worked hard at developing this craft, and she must know how good she is. But yet, offstage, she is as uncomfortable with flattery as anyone. When I told her I had transcribed one of her scat solos (All of Me at Shops at Don Mills, available on YouTube), she laughed nervously and said: “Don’t do that, I don’t know what I’m doing!” Imagine the luck that must be involved, to build a career of not knowing what you’re doing!

Her voice has a rasp to it. Not the kind that comes from years of smoking, but the kind that might come from shouting excitedly about something for a few minutes. The rasp isn’t the defining feature of her voice, but to me it adds something to the performance that’s difficult to nail down. It’s shading. Musical shading. The rasp is good. But through the rasp comes a voice that is clear, powerful, and shockingly huge.

I’ve only heard her perform live three times – each at a different venue, with a different ensemble. And each time the experience was radically different. In fact, if it wasn’t radically different, it wouldn’t be worth attending, never mind writing about.

When she was a novice on the Toronto scene, Perlman says she found it “baffling, and at times really frustrating” how fluid lineups were. But – as evidenced by the performances I’ve seen, and the ease with which she adapts – she’s gotten used to that since then: “The beauty of belonging to this community is that every time you stand onstage, and take stock of who’s there, you realize there are two things at play: you have a relationship with everyone on the bandstand to some degree. Usually. But most of the time, they all have their own relationships with everyone else on the bandstand – a whole other collection of shared musical experiences, some of which don’t include you!”

I’m excited, and I hope you’re excited, too:

You can catch Sophia Perlman adapting to all manor of different factors at two listed gigs this month (and possibly more): one at Bloom in Toronto with Adrean Farrugia and Ross MacIntyre on November 26; the other at Manhattans Pizza Bistro & Music Club in Guelph with Terra Hazelton, under the name PerlHaze. clip_image001.png

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

Mainly_Mostly_-_Rich_Brown.pngThis month, I am looking forward. After all, there is a lot to look forward to in the fall: the beginning of Christmas as defined by retailers everywhere; colourful leaves and colourful sweaters; the post-Halloween candy binge; and, I suppose, even Halloween itself.

My favourite thing about this fall is going to be the sounds, I’m sure. Not only the crunching of les feuilles mortes under busy Torontonian feet, but the music gracing the stages at busy Toronto concert venues.

Let me take you back to winter. On a snowy Saturday in January, 2011, I went to check out a double bill at The Rex. Ricochet, a group featuring Adrean Farrugia, Andrew Downing, Ravi Naimpally, Anthony Michelli, Kevin Turcotte, Kelly Jefferson and Sophia Perlman, was my reason for going, but I was told that at 12:30 there would be a special late-night set by a band I hadn’t yet heard of, and since I didn’t have to rise early the next morning and no extra cover was required for the late set, I stuck around.

The group played original music by bassist/composer Rich Brown and featured Luis Deniz on alto sax, Robi Botos on keyboards and Larnell Lewis on the drums. For the next few years – at least two, maybe more – I followed Rinse the Algorithm obsessively, attended every one of their monthly late night gigs at The Rex and most of their gigs elsewhere, purchased their album, Locutions, which I think is still available for download on iTunes, and even spent a lot of time transcribing what I heard – melodies, chord changes, solos, drum patterns – sometimes on the spot at the concert.

The aforementioned lineup was the core group for most of the time that I knew the band, but occasionally I saw them with subs: Farrugia subbed for Botos one time, I think I remember Jefferson stepping in for Deniz, and I’m certain that at least two monstrous drummers filled the drum chair (which, with Lewis in the group, is a huge chair): Otis Williams and Chino de Villa.

Locutions is an album undeniably worth listening to (my favourite track is As if Sleepwalking With Headphones On – a tune which they didn’t play live as often as some of the others), but it couldn’t hold a candle to their live concerts. They brought something intangible to the stage that seems to me impossible to translate in a studio. They had, or I suppose they still have, a tune called The Lakeside Stroll. To get a sense of what it was like hearing the same repertoire interpreted a different way each month, take a look on YouTube for that tune. You’ll find at least three, if not more, versions of it, which are all, despite being the same tune, spontaneous compositions in and of themselves.

Mainly_Mostly_-_Kevin_Turcotte.pngAt the time I stumbled across this band, I was not that new to live jazz, and certainly not new to live music. I had heard groups before that played music I found strikingly original, like RTA did, and groups that displayed tremendous technical facility on their instruments, like RTA did, and groups that made each tune sound radically different each time they played it, like RTA did, and groups that sent me out of the venue with a goofy smile on my face, like RTA very consistently did – so it’s difficult to pin down exactly why I thought they were so special. But given the huge following they had, I think I was and am in if not good company, lots of company – so I’m in no hurry to justify myself.

In the winter of 2012/13, Brown held two solo bass concerts at the now-defunct venue, 80 Gladstone, which I attended, of course. During some RTA concerts, he would open a song with a bass solo, and it seemed to me that, month to month, these weren’t just improvisations, but compositions he was developing over time. It was at these lovely, intimate concerts at 80 Gladstone that I first got a more complete sense of what Brown was going for. Not only is it very good, it’s available for sampling on YouTube: just search “Rich Brown:Nguyên,” and it should come up. Dive into related videos. Have fun.

I don’t like to say I have a favourite anything, but Brown has to be my favourite composer in the city, at least within this idiom. His compositions are deeply considered, and deeply moving as a result. They’re harmonically novel – at least to my ear – and often circular in nature, much like Blue in Green. They don’t always necessarily have a clear end or beginning. Brown doesn’t write compositions that can be described as happy or sad. It’s all much more nuanced than that. Words that better describe his compositions are meditative, unhinged, biting, nostalgic, conflicted and reverent.

This is all to say that Brown has a new project, Rich Brown & The Abeng. I don’t know much about it, except that given Brown’s track record and the absolutely stellar lineup, featuring Stan Fomin on keys and Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, it will be amazing.

The Abeng’s CD release party will be happening at Lula Lounge on October 21 at 8:30pm and the $15 cover charge will be worth way more than that.

I look forward to seeing you all there. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

Mainly_Mostly_1.jpgJazz jams can be a beautiful thing. To my mind, if a jazz jam is working as it should (as, for example, it does every Tuesday at The Rex), everyone involved should be primarily interested in three things: making good music, respecting each other, and above all, having fun. To me, fun is the launching point for everything. If you don’t have fun playing your instrument, you won’t have fun practising it. If you don’t have fun practising or playing, no one will have fun listening. Look at Oscar Peterson’s face. Was he having fun? I rest my case.

But unfortunately, and this is no big secret, some jazz jams can foster an unfortunate atmosphere of tension, intimidation, and competitiveness, which destroys the fun and undermines the spirit of the music. Artists of all sorts should absolutely care about the quality and integrity of their art. But at the end of the day, it is just art. When petty concerns of quality and integrity eclipse art’s purpose (whatever it is), that, to me, is tragic.

Luckily, the active jazz jams I am fortunate to regularly attend in this city evade these troubles. Generally they are welcoming and accepting of instrumentalists of all levels and walks of life – instrumentalists being the key word here; there has always been a sort of self-imposed segregation between vocalists and instrumentalists. And for reasons I don’t have the space or time to discuss here, it can be difficult for a vocalist to find a jam where they are welcomed and not underestimated or relegated to the sidelines.

Lisa Particelli was acutely aware of this, as most jazz singers are, when, more than a decade ago, she founded GNO: Girls’ Night Out (where gentlemen are welcome, too). GNO Jazz began its ten-plus-year run at The Cabbage Patch, a now-defunct pub that was located on Parliament St., where the Flying Beaver Pubaret existed until property damage forced that venue to close this past summer.

Although GNO has recently included a house band complete with piano, bass and drums, when it started on Parliament in January, 2005, the house band consisted only of Richard Whitehouse on piano. Within the first year, Peter Hill took over on piano, and after sitting in on several sessions, Ross MacIntyre became the official bassist.

As GNO grew, the jam – and the community which sprang up around it – cycled through a few venues, including Ten Feet Tall (defunct), Dominion on Queen (currently closed for renovations), and many more, before settling on Chalkers Pub on Marlee, seven years ago.

Chalkers: It was during GNO’s run at Chalkers that Lisa Particelli was able to establish a scholarship fund to encourage and help young vocalists achieve their artistic and professional goals. Chalkers was also, during this time,  a venue that hosted jazz greats like Oliver Jones, Jason Marsalis and Sheila Jordan – whom I had the great pleasure of meeting when I ushered for two of her concerts there. (In addition to being a genuine and adventurous performer, she is one of the sweetest, most infectiously charming people I’ve ever spoken with.)

The aforementioned Oliver Jones, incidentally, is indirectly responsible for the Chalkers piano. If you have seen, heard, or had the good fortune to play the wonderful piano on the Chalkers Pub stage, you have Oliver Jones, Don Thompson and Lisa Particelli to thank: “Oliver Jones’ attendance at my jam helped me to convince the former Chalkers owner that we needed a real piano,” Particelli explained. “We first got a Yamaha upright and later Don Thompson helped choose a Shigeru Kawai grand from Merriam Music which we all were sad to [say] goodbye to since leaving Chalkers after July 1st.”

In addition to all these wonderful things that happened to, because of, and around GNO over the last seven years at Chalkers Pub, Chalkers was where I discovered GNO. I came into it fairly late (both in the jam’s history and on any given Wednesday night), but when I got there, in addition to a great house band (Peter Hill, Ross MacIntyre and Louis Botos Sr., who is the granddaddy of the incredible Botos family), I saw wonderful and important things happening: I saw people going up on stage without – or despite – performance anxiety; I saw professors and professionals mingling with students and novices, and perhaps most importantly, I saw an audience offering unconditional support to whomever was on stage.

Since GNO left Chalkers Pub after the very last Wednesday jam on Canada Day this year, GNO has been on hiatus. But at the end of July, during her monthly session at Morgans on the Danforth (on the last Sunday of every month, 2 to 5pm) Particelli finally announced that GNO would be returning weekly, this time on Tuesdays from 7 to 11pm, at 120 Diner on Church (Ori Dagan can be thanked for that booking). Unfortunately, there will be no longer be a drummer in the house band – and Louis Sr.’s services will be missed – but aside from that, everything will be the same. The same great bassist, the same great pianist. The same great vibes. And the same amazing community.

Particelli is excited about it, as we all are. “We look forward to seeing everyone in September,” she said.

Mainly_Mostly_2.jpgLaura Swankey is the kind of singer who will offer up variations so tastefully you could swear they were in the published melody. I first encountered her last fall when she attended a monthly jam at Habits Gastropub hosted by drummer Harrison Vetro. When I went on stage, somebody called Stella by Starlight, somebody else counted it in, and we were off. Swankey began “The soooong the robin sings ....” And before the end of the head, I was a fan.

Since then, I’ve attended a bunch of her shows, and found that in addition to playing straight ahead gigs – in which she will play a mix of standards and originals – she also performs “free music” (the quotation marks are there because all music, free music included, has parameters, and I am a little skeptical of the notion that free music is all that separate from other music). At gigs where she joins and is joined on stage by people like Emily Denison (trumpet), Christine Duncan (voice), Andrew Furlong (bass) and others, music is played that I, to be frank, don’t fully understand. But I like it. Patterns do emerge, and my brain, being conditioned and steeped in tonal music, tries to make tonal sense of it; but ultimately, that isn’t the point.

At one such show, though, Swankey surprised me with a wonderful rendition of Smile; she sang it slowly, sleepily, over a drone created by the guitar, with the trumpet playing a challenging counterline. It was one of the most engaging live performances I’ve seen in this city. A description on paper would not do it justice. You’ll have to go and check her out in the clubs.

And luckily, this month, you can! Swankey will be performing a few days this month. On Saturday, September 12 at the CMC (Canadian Music Centre), she will be participating in the one-year-anniversary celebration of OPUS:TESTING, a bi-monthly composition workshop that started in June 2014. Swankey describes the event: “Six break-out groups from different disciplines [will come] together for the day to create some kind of improvisation art presentation.” The presentation is happening between 6 and 7pm.

The next evening, she’ll be playing more straight ahead music at Gate 403 with Connor Walsh on bass and Leonard Patterson on drums - a chordless trio, in which the horn is a voice.

And finally, on September 16, Swankey will be appearing with The Wind and the Water, an a cappella quartet which will be performing music by Rachel Cardiello, as part of the Dead Dad’s Club premiere. The group also includes Aimee Butcher, Belinda Corpuz and Danielle Knibbe. “These three women are fantastic musicians and I love singing and creating with them,”, Swankey said. Details are forthcoming on The Wind and the Water’s Facebook page.

These gigs will be coming on the heels of Swankey’s return from Banff, where she worked with Billy Hart, Ingrid Jensen, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey and many more. I think we can be confident that the “amazing and life-changing” experiences she had in Banff will be reflected in her September gigs.

I have always enjoyed the types of singers who use their voices with the same improvisational spirit as any good horn player – Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, and company. Swankey is in that company. She, like many singers, (including the aforementioned Sheila Jordan, who studied with Lennie Tristano) studied with at least one instrumentalist; during her time at U of T, she studied with saxophonist, Toronto jazz scene fixture and Shuffle Demon Mike Murley. Swankey describes those lessons as “Amazing! I felt very connected to him as a person and the way he teaches and approaches his playing. Mike is a very lyrical and soulful player.”

One more gig I need to mention. Sadly, I won’t be present at either of the two listed performances – at the Jazz Bistro September 28 and the KW Jazz Room September 19 – of saxophonist and arranger Bobby Hsu’s A Sondheim Jazz Project. But I feel the need to convince as many people as possible to go in my place. In addition to the fantastic musicianship of the band, and the tremendous voice of Alex Samaras, Hsu is doing something important with this group.

It’s a given that a lot of jazz standards have their origins in Broadway musicals (many of which failed, despite the success of the songs that later rose from the ashes). What Hsu’s group is doing, in bringing songs into the jazz world (from a composer whose work is not nearly present enough in it), is a natural extension of the tradition we all already knew existed. A Sondheim Jazz Project does it with dedication and love, and it’s very entertaining.

I cannot wait to see you all in the clubs this fall. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at jazz@thewholenote.com.

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