The Independent Ear

Jazz Takes a Stand

Black Lives Matter
By Ron Scott
Regardless of America’s ever-changing situation black music has always been its soundtrack depicting the mood of the times from war to peace, lynchings to chain gangs, segregation, civil disobedience, integration, to police brutality, and nonviolent resistance.

Jazz musicians may not always be directly involved in protest marches, or on picket lines but their music has always been heard loud and clear. It’s the soul of black folks like the deep blues from the emotional river of Billie Holiday every time one hears her sing “Strange Fruit”. No the song isn’t about police brutality but it has everything to do with the killings of innocent unarmed black men, racism at its most sinister peak, and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today when folks hear “Strange Fruit” they get a chill visualizing the bodies hanging from those trees and the thought is this should never happen again.

The protesters in New York City, California, Cleveland, Ferguson and throughout America are saying the same thing “We do not want to see this again; unarmed young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Timar Rice and many others being killed at the hands of police officers.” The song “Stand” by Sly and the Family Stone is an anthem for any protesters march. “Stand for the things you know are right/it’s the truth that makes them so uptight/Stand there is a midget standing tall and a giant beside him about to fall” for these purposes the giant is the system. These young men were “Young, Gifted and Black” as was the great poet Henry Dumas whose life was taken in 1968 by a Transit Policeman in a case of mistaken identity, he was 33 years-old just beginning a successful career.

I Can't Breathe

Young, Gifted, and Black” was sung by Nina Simone: “To be young gifted and black/ yours is the quest just begun. To be young gifted and black is where it is at.” When they are so quickly taken away as in the cases of Brown, Garner, and Rice then for the parents these are “Stolen Moments” (Oliver Nelson). The dreams, aspirations, and hopes are gone and all that remains are memories.
In Her song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” she notes “Is it too late for us, and did he die in vain.”

Simone’s song “Four Women” depicts four black women whose lives are based on their skin color; Aunt Sara probably a slave as she says “my skin is black/my back is strong/strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again.” The pain crying out in black America started with Aunt Sara, and travelled through Simone’s characters “Safronia” and “Sweet Thing” both misused and disenchanted by society. Simone finishes on a high note with Peaches. “My skin is brown/my matter is tough/I’m bitter because my parents were slaves/I’ll kill the first mother I see.” When equality doesn’t work for the masses and the same deadly situations become a hideous habit in black communities then “Peaches” appears wanting action.

They call it civil unrest or “riots” But riots wouldn’t occur if the problems were met with viable plans and solutions rather than politicians, commissioners, and others constantly living in the American tradition of reactionary mode. Let’s talk about Rodney King in 1991, and deal with those issues so it won’t happen again but here it is again. Dr. Billy Taylor wrote “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free,” and today many are still wondering.

In 1960 Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite was released on the Candid Records label. The cover reflects a sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement. The recording features five selections on protests, slavery, and the growing African independence movements of the 1950s. Only Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln perform on all five tracks, and one track features a guest appearance by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
Unite for Justice

John Coltrane’s “Alabama” appears on his album Live at Birdland (Impulse 1963). It was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls.

In 2012 Trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith recorded his 4/CD set Ten Freedom Summers that included “Emmett Till: Defiant Fearless” a tribute to the 14 year-old who was hideously killed in Mississippi, in 1955. Other titles in this collection include “Dred Scott, 1857”, “The Freedom Riders Ride,” Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381Days”.
In the 1970s Chicago (Columbia Records) recorded their four-movement composition “Better End Soon.” The song reflects the tragedy of wars, and inequality, “people hating and hurting their brothers/they can’t understand/better end soon we can make it happen/we can change the world.”

The O’Jays say there is a “Message in Our Music.” “There is a message in our song/we are going to talk about all the things that’s been going down/so understand while you dance/trying to make you see things aren’t the way they’re suppose to be.”

Whether people are marching, dying, demonstrating, or crying there will be jazz warriors playing rhythmic sighs and bold tones of injustice and pain, and the hipness of the swing as it relates to blacks and every one of America’s freedom & justice movements.

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Jazz @ the Kennedy Center 2015/2016 season

Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center, outside of Lincoln Center, offers the most extensive jazz programming of any of the major arts centers in this country. We owe that in part to the stewardship of the late, great jazz renaissance man Dr. Billy Taylor, who did so much during his storied tenure as Artistic Director for Jazz at the KC to not only provide the music with a prestigious platform, but also to dismiss the barriers and perceived boundaries between jazz and other classic art forms. Countless now-dedicated jazz enthusiasts mark one or a series of Billy Taylor presentations at the Kennedy Center as the turning point in their personal evolution through the music as consumers and lovers of the sounds, citing Billy as their virtual tour guide who demystified the music for them.

Working alongside Dr. Taylor for much of his tenure, steadily building the music’s significant Kennedy Center profile was the witty and erudite KC administrator Kevin Struthers, who has now been in place for over 20 years. It was largely Kevin Struthers who, upon the passing of Billy Taylor, had the prescience to engage a younger artist, pianist-composer Jason Moran, to take Jazz at the Kennedy Center to the next level. And when I speak next level, I’m also considering the fact that not only have Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wayne Shorter with the National Symphony, Charles Lloyd, and Robert Glasper found welcoming stages at the Kennedy Center in recent times, so have Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, the group Yard Byard, and Maceo Parker during Moran’s tenure. Along the way not only has the Terrace Theatre (gotta say, after years of descending stairs to lower level jazz haunts, I’ve always loved the idea of jazz being presented on the penthouse level at the KC!) been a welcome home to the music, but the music has also seen the altering of Kennedy Center’s physical plant in the morphing of a multi-purpose room into the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, and a huge, yawning atrium into the Crossroads Club. The latter, primarily under Moran’s keen programming, is a standing club, with bar, geared towards attracting younger audiences for dance-worthy presentations like Glasper’s Experiment, Soulive, Maceo, Roy Hargrove‘s RH Factor and others. Not only does the Crossroads Club lend itself to the dance impulse, its also friendly towards those who love nothing better than hitting up their devices during a performance to inform their social media contacts of the haps.

(Here’s a link to an interview I did with Jason Moran last spring.)

Earlier this week the Kennedy Center held its 2015/2016 season press announcement event, which covered its symphonic, dance, ballet, chamber music, opera, and jazz presentations, including several crossover efforts between KC constituent forms. In addition to Moran and artists representing the various forms, KC Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates introduced his new curated contemporary music series KC Jukebox, which among other programs on November 9 will present Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music, which promises to take listeners on “an immersive journey through a century of ambient music, from today’s electronica to 1970s minimal is, to the “furniture music” of 1930s Paris.” This is decidedly not your grandmother’s Kennedy Center anymore! Bates will also collaborate with Moran next March in Jason + Mason at the Crossroads Club, on an evening of electric jazz that will include a DJ set by Bates alter persona, DJ Masonic.

This artist-curated crossing genres series will include several additional Moran collaborations, with classical pianist Jeremy Denk, choreographer Ronald K. Brown, a duo concert with Charles Lloyd, and a Gershwin program that will include his wife Alicia Hall Moran, an opera contralto. The Moran series bound to generate the most buzz – details of which led off Wednesday’s Washington Post account of the KC’s ’15/’16 season – is Jason + Skateboarding, a reprise of sorts of a fresh program Moran premiered at SF Jazz. Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music, and Media will run September 11-12, 2015. The Kennedy Center will build a skateboarding venue and Jason Moran and the Bandwagon will perform in interaction with the skateboarders.

In addition to the usual raft of Kennedy Center jazz presentations at the Terrace Theatre and the KC Jazz Club, other highlights of the ’15/’16 jazz season include presentations of NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Cobb, Jimmy Heath, and Charles Lloyd; Joe Lovano‘s new Village Rhythms Band (with Liberty Ellman, Michael Olatuja, Abdou Mboup, and Otis Brown lll) a world premiere commissioned work by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and the Discovery Artists series at the KC Jazz Club. Vijay Iyer will partner with the Brentano String Quartet on an evening October 15, and A Family Affair series will feature twins EJ and Marcus Strickland, The Whitfield Family Band (dad Mark on guitar and sons Mark Jr. on drums and Davis on piano), and twins Peter and Will Anderson Quintet, the two sets of twin brothers evenings inspired by Moran’s own experience raising twin sons, as he remarked during the press event.

That’s only part of an auspicious 2015/2016 Kennedy Center Jazz season; for complete details visit or Google Kennedy Center jazz.

Jason Moran

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One jazz musicians’ response to a societal challenge

Mike LeDonne 1
Mike LeDonne

This is a story of one jazz musician’s sense of humanity that has been deeply touched by personal experience. While perusing the myriad possibilities offered by the annual Winterjazzfest (January 9-10), conspicuously tagged onto many of the releases about that mid-winter NYC delight was a January 8 event with the curious title Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride. That benefit, organized by the soulful organist-pianist Mike LeDonne, was held at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House in Manhattan, and was scheduled to feature such greats as NEA Jazz Masters Ron Carter, George Coleman, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Cobb, along with Renee Rosnes, Russell Malone, Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein and a cast of dozens. A subsequent post from Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services detailed LeDonne’s touching motivation behind producing this event; touched to his core by his daughter’s disability, he aimed to generate a disability pride parade that he hoped would have a similar impact on public consciousness as the gay pride parades held around the world.

We caught up to Mike LeDonne recently, after he disembarked from a jazz cruise, for further details on what has so energized him to address the plight of the disabled.

Please talk about your family experience that has motivated your increased interest in the plight of the disabled.
On Valentine’s Day 2004 my daughter Mary was born very premature and had to finish baking in an incubator for almost 3 months. Covered in wires and attached to machines that had alarms going off all the time she fought through and thrived. We were told that she would be morbidly obese, severely mentally retarded and have behavioral problems. This was because they found she had a syndrome called Prader Willi. To us, all we saw was someone severely cute and sweet. She made it home and had to eventually have a shunt put in her tiny head that drained the fluid from her brain down to her stomach because besides Prader Willi Syndrome she also had hydrocephalus. She fought through many brain surgeries as the shunt kept failing and once again we were in the hospital for 3 months. She’d come back from having an old tube taken out and a new tube drilled into a new place in her skull, with her head all bandaged, sit up and smile and start playing with her toys. Today she is not morbidly obese and, although she is non verbal, has blossomed into quite a character.

Having Mary in our lives has been the greatest experience my wife and I could have imagined and we could not be prouder of her. We have seen a whole new dimension to humanity through her. Through my family’s experience I’ve learned that love is a very powerful force. Doctor’s and medicine are very necessary but Mary has taught us that love is truly a healing force and goes way beyond anything doctor or medicine can achieve.

My interest in getting involved with Disability rights is to try to change stereotypes and raise awareness about who and what the disabled truly are – just people like you and me. They are not “special” but people dealing, the best way they can, with a disability and trying to achieve and maintain the best and most independent lifestyle they can.

Ultimately what is your goal as far as putting your heightened awareness of disabled persons on the front burner of our collective consciousness?
To increase civil rights and try to bring the non-disabled public out of the dark ages and change the way they look at and define the disabled. To get them to give people with disabilities (PWD’s) equal respect and treat them as full fledged human beings. To realize that they have all the same wants, desires and problems we all face. To stop the pity and replace it with a sense of pride both in and out of the community.

Mike LeDonne
Mike LeDonne introducing Mary at the Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride event, with George Coleman (left) and event MC Rob Crocker of WBGO

I would like to help the parents of the disabled come out of the closet, so to speak, as far as accepting that their child is disabled and feel proud of them for who and what they are. To love and care for them but not be overly protective and wind up smothering their ability to be independent.

For children like my daughter I would like to educate parents of the abled to teach their children to stop staring at disabled children like they have 2 heads just because they are in a wheelchair and may look different than they do. To take the opportunity to educate their children and to increase awareness that children with disabilities are not “weird” but simply another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity. I would like them to see what I see when I look at Mary and know what I know.

To educate the medical community. Our experience was a typical one. From the moment you get pregnant you’re told to go through all these tests because, God forbid, the child you’re carrying might be disabled in some way. They tell you that if you find out that your child is likely to be disabled, you can simply end the pregnancy and try again. I was never an anti-abortion person, and I’m still not, but I now know that to end a pregnancy because the child is going to be different than other children is completely wrong and should never happen unless the child is going to go through some kind of horrible suffering. Thank God they didn’t have a test like that for my daughter’s rare syndrome because the thought that we might have ended that pregnancy and not have
Mary today sends a chill down my spine. This whole attitude about a disabled human being something you can simply get rid of just goes to reinforce all the horrible stereotypes to come. It’s all backwards and barbaric and needs to be brought out into the light and exposed.

And then there’s the scariest thought of all for any parent of a disabled child. What happens to my child when we’re gone? Right now the picture is far from rosy. State-run institutions make a lot of money housing the disabled and don’t support the idea of them achieving an independent lifestyle. They would rather keep the money flowing into their institutions where they too often simply drug the disabled, stick them in a wheelchair and shove them in a corner. Sounds horrible but this is what happens all too often and it has to stop.

Talk about your recent benefit concert on January 9; how that all came together and the ultimate results of the evening.
Jazz Legends For Disability Pride was an incredible and historic event. It brought together all my worlds under one roof where we were all equals and bonded together by a mutual love for this music. All my musical heroes and friends, Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Buster Williams, Brad Mehldau, Harold Mabern and many others were there playing jazz music of the highest level. Each band came out and played 2 tunes back to back for 2 hours. It’s impossible to describe the feeling in that place that night but it’s something I will never forget. At the end I brought my daughter Mary to the front of the place and introduced her to everyone and told them that I couldn’t be prouder that she is my child. A huge cheer went up from the crowd and all the musicians. That is a moment I will never forget.

It was a major undertaking for me and, just like forming my non profit, something I had no idea how to do or had ever done before. Thanks to some old friends, who helped me figure out where to get all the things in place that a concert like that needed, and to some new friends, like Winter Jazzfest who joined forces with me and helped me with promotion and selling tickets, I was able to put it all together. Even Steinway Piano, who I have endorsed since the 80’s, sponsored the piano which means they gave us a beautiful instrument that I picked out, delivered it, tuned and picked it up, for free. That is something they don’t normally do.

None of this has been easy. In fact it’s been more work and demanded more patience than I ever thought myself capable of. But the night was so unbelievable and beautiful and this cause is so huge and important it gives me the strength to persevere.

Where are you going from here, what are your next steps in these efforts?
The next step is also another huge one. We are now planning our first Disability Pride Parade set for July 12. The Mayor’s office has joined with us and is helping us but even with that there’s a ton of things we have to coordinate and get together. We have the route but we need to get all kinds of things for the event. We are planning a parade and then a celebration in the form of a big street party. We will have many entertainers, all from the disability community, along with guest speakers. We hope to have food and drink and basically a huge party. We raised a lot of money at the fund raiser but we need a lot more because having a parade in NYC is not cheap. We are hoping for some corporate backing if possible but we are also depending on the kindness of others in the form of tax deductible donations. All donations can be made out our website

How can people stay in touch with your activities on behalf of the disabled?
We are updating our website so it will be more accessible for people with disabilities. People should check it periodically as we will be using it to keep everyone up to date.


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Achieving a successful East meets West

In recent times the term ‘fusion’ has become somewhat taboo. For some the idea of endeavoring to achieve a fusion comes with a red flag warning the participants that inevitably one form or entity is bound to dominate, or even take over the other. Such was hardly the case with a recent program that brought to the stage the Ragamala Dance Company’s East Indian dance conjoined with a jazz composer’s sensibility with jazz, and Carnatic music. As one of four commissioning organization partners, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (University of Maryland) helped foster the seamless synergy of the music of saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa and the Ragamala Dance Company for a beautiful program titled “Song Of The Jasmine.”


The 75-minute program featured the live, stage left music ensemble (no recordings) of Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, Rez Abbasi on guitar, Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum of southern India origins), Raman Kalyan on Carnatic (wood) flute, and Anjna Swaminathan on Carnatic violin. Obviously Mahanthappa and Abbasi – Indian and Pakistani, born in the U.S. and though well-steeped in Carnatic music – were representative of the West. They achieved a very successful simpatico with the three Carnatic musicians; there were no lines of demarcation in this live music, an obvious testament to Rudresh and Rez’s ability to bring their Western instruments, ancestral/cultural memories, and improvisational skills to a Carnatic atmosphere, yet still maintain a strong sense of the art of jazz music. In keeping with jazz and Rudresh and Rez’s orientation, there were clearly large helpings of improvisation in his various saxophone passages and in Abbasi’s forays.

The exquisite elegance of East Indian dance was on vivid display in the marvelous turns of the five dancers of the Ragamala Dance Company. One of the key charms of East Indian dance is in the intricate hand movements and the stories they tell with the flick of an upturned wrist and the delicate movements of the fingers. The beauty of their finely detailed costuming is another essential element in Indian dance, including the expressive ankle bells; each detail conveying story and emotion. Their movement fusion with Mahanthappa’s composition and the expressions of the ensemble were exceptionally beautiful. Chief among the dancers, and Rudresh’s key collaborator, was Aparna Ramaswamy.

For novices to this dance form, like myself, the moderated post-concert Q&A with Rudresh, Aparna, and her mother, Ragamala co-director Ranee Ramaswamy was essential to gaining a greater understanding. This collaboration was owed in part to Aparna’s inquisitive imagination. She experienced a Rudresh Mahanthappa music performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, home base of Ragamala, and was so struck by the music that she sought this collaboration, which was then enabled in large part through the co-commissioning partnership of four prescient presenting organizations (The Walker, Clarice Smith, Krannert Center for the Arts (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The guiding literary force behind this collaboration was the writings of the 8th-century Tamil mystic poet Andal, whose writings it is said erase any dichotomy between the sacred and the personal through seamless inter weavings of both. Clearly this was a call to a higher consciousness.

No overnight undertaking, once their agreement was forged it took eight months of conversation, composition, choreography, and rehearsal to bring this work to the public stage. That evening at Clarice Smith we were transformed by the power of the perseverance of these artists to realize this work.

It should be mentioned here that both Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi have remarkable new albums in release, both pictured below.
Rudresh BIrd Calls

Rez Abbasi

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Havana jazz festival swings with a cultural beat

By Ron Scott
Our correspondent Ron Scott, noted contributor to the Amsterdam News on all things jazz, reports from the 30th annual Inaternacional Jazz Plaza Festival La Habana.

Havana Jazz Festival
It was our fourth day in Havana, Cuba enjoying the music, digesting its spicy cultural history, and getting another political perspective without the filtered watercolors of America. We entered the tour bus on Wednesday morning, December 17, looking forward to another great day of vibrant, colorful neighborhoods and historic landmarks. At that moment the highlight of the day would be the opening of the 30th annual Internacional Jazz Plaza Festival La Habana, taking place later that evening.

While en route the tour guide, microphone in hand, informed everyone that President Obama had just announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. after 50 years. Many thought he was joking, but then he became choked up and stated, “I am getting this from a friend watching CNN.”

The U.S. and Canadian tourists quickly began discussing the many possibilities for Cuba and the United States, including the most immediate question: “Can we return to the U.S. with rum and Cohiba cigars?”

The trip immediately became more jubilant, a history in the making moment. Before President Obama’s announcement, Cubans in the streets asked our origins and were impressed by those from New York, but now their comments were “Oh, Nueva York, maybe I will see you there soon.” U.S. tourists discussed taking direct flights to Cuba without being involved in a tour package. The young female curator of the Ernest Hemingway House located outside of Havana in the town of Cojimar noted, “Maybe I can finally get papers so I can visit my mother and sister in Florida!”

Havana old city

During the jazz festival young jazz musicians, such as flutist Fredy Fernandez said, “Maybe now I can come to New York so I can study music at the New School.” He was a member of the Zule Guerra & Blues de Habana (which performed at a late night jam session at the Hotel Cohiba). Zule Guerra was the leader and vocalist of the band. She gave the septet room enough to broaden their improvisational commitment, invoking aggressive riffs in a straight-ahead tradition, with Afro-Cuban overtones. Yissy Garcia, the 15-year old drummer, possessed a hard bop style, noting that she had learned by watching videos and listening to records of Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones.

The festival opened in Havana’s main hall, the Teatro Mella, with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Bobby Carcasses, who had launched Cuba’s first jazz festival with musicians Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdes. Unlike his fellow musicians Carcasses had remained in Cuba and taught young musicians, like the drummer Dafnis Prieto and saxophonist Yosvany Terry, both now residing in New York. Carcasses welcomed the audience before fronting a big band in a rendition of “BabaLu”, with scat singing riding a bop influence. He had through the years performed with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

As a key figure on the Cuban Jazz scene, Carcasses performed on four different events during the festival. The evening also featured the Magic Quartet Saxophones, an intuitive force of tenor, alto, soprano and bass saxophones playing in a fast swinging improvisational mode. An all-female big band was also a driving force of Afro-Cuban swing.

On various nights the festival venue Teatro Mella featured the Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, with guest pianist Michelle Rosewoman, and Arturo’s son Adam on trumpet. Arturo’s arrangement of “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” was an upbeat, hard swinging melody. He also featured the dance troupe Compania MalPaso, an artistic, high-stepping modern ensemble. l Arturo and the orchestra were also busy recording a new CD across town.

Roberto Fonseca is one of Cuba’s celebrated pianists who has played and recorded in New York. His ensemble was a cross between Return to Forever and Weather Report, with a taste of fusion funk and Cubana soul. His sound swings between Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Chucho Valdes.

Havana street scene

The Kansas City Community College Jazz Orchestra performed such standards as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Cannonball Adderley‘s “Julie,” and an uptempo version of “All of Me,” which prompted some audience members to get up and dance.

The Colombian saxophonist Justo Almario, who lives in California, was a special guest playing with the bassist Jorge Reyes. Along with the band, they raised the roof. Almario had played with Mongo Santamaria in New York when he lived on 127th Street and Lenox Avenue.

Havana is a cultural city with much to offer the cultured palate, especially when it comes to art, museums, dance, and music. Their Frabrica De Arte Cubano (FAC) a three-story complex (with three bards and a snack bar), features live music on then first floor, music videos, and a cinema space that features 1950s noir films, documentaries, and an outdoor patio where there is a view of the live shows downstairs of jazz, or Afro-Cuban roots music. The third floor is an art gallery with installations.

FAC is open until 4:am, largely attracting an audience from early 20s to middle age. There is no admission, patrons pay only for food or drinks, and my total for the night was just $2.00 for one drink!

Cuba doesn’t separate the music or arts like Americans, and they dance to jazz whether traditional or with an Afro-Cuban beat. Most of their bands include that hypnotic beat from the shores of Africa.

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