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The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz



What a better way to celebrate the passage of time (New Year), from a musical standpoint, than with Loren Schoenberg, musician, Jazz scholar, former director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.


His book "The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz" (https://www.amazon.com/NPR-Curious-Listeners-Guide-Jazz/dp/039952794X) is a great introduction to Jazz, and an opportunity to discover or learn to appreciate many artists through  Schoenberg's insightful and informative comments.




One of the chapters contains a list of "50 exceptional performances". Going through these performances in chronological order (they are presented alphabetically in the book), it is amazing to see how rapidly Jazz developed in the past century, from the early 1920s on. It is also fascinating to listen to some of the earlier artists and realize that they still sound so fresh today.


Here is a Qobuz playlist containing 48 of these performances (two of them not being available on Qobuz): https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/7894592


Below are some of these performances, with Schoenberg's comments.


Jelly Roll Morton - Black Bottom Stomp - 1926



Here you have the swirling polyphony of New Orleans organized with compositional genius by the pianist/composer Jelly roll Morton. To some, a front line of cornet, trumpet, and trombone would be a limitation, but Morton gets more out of these three than most arrangers do with a dozen horns. he also chose players who were masters at weaving New Orleans counterpoint, which is active but never cluttered. If you want to see exactly how creative Morton is, get out a pen (maybe a pencil would be more practical) and make a list of the different combinations of instruments that Morton uses, and how they keep switching. the backgrounds are always changing around (and there are the breaks, which he insisted were an essential element of Jazz), and note how he saves the big guns for the swinging out choruses. the advances in recording technology between this 1926 item and the tunes King Oliver's band recorded just three years earlier are tremendous. You can hear on this one what New Orleans rhythm sections actually sounded like at the time - and they're stomping.


Bix Beiderbecke - Singin' the Blues - 1927



Like some of the contemporary Armstrong recordings, this performance is etched so deeply into the Jazz vernacular that it is difficult to imagine how different it sounded at the time. Saxophonist Frank Trumbauer (a.k.a "Tram") and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke created a pair of solos that offered the first viable alternative to Armstrong's overwhelming genius. They had their own way of shaping their phrases, and threw the emphasis on different corners of the harmony. Out of this sprang a new melodic vocabulary that was tremendously influential. Among those who knew this recording intimately were Lester Young, Rex Stewart, Artie Shaw, and Benny Carter. Less remarked upon is the guitar work of Eddie Lang, whose counterpoint must have been a great inspiration to Bix and Tram. His function here is mostly in the background, but his nonstop commentary is an essential element in the piece's success. there was no precedent for this kind of Jazz playing in 1927.


Earl Hines - Fifty Seven Varieties - 1928



No sooner had stride piano become codified in the mid-twenties through the work of James P. Johnson than Earl Hines blew the whole thing to smithereens in 1928 with recordings such as this. Made just months after his historic collaborations with Louis Armstrong (including "West End Blues" and the duet "Weatherbird"), Hines did to the conventions of Jazz piano what Picasso had done to representational painting. He made us understand the relationships between melody, harmony, and rhythm in new ways with his startling juxtapositions. There are passages here which, if isolated, would be as hard to parse as a corner of a pointillistic painting, but their function becomes clearer when heard as part of the total piece. Hines manages to simultaneously carry on two separate planes of improvisation. The lead passes from one hand to the other with no preparation, and there are even moments when one of them has to wait for the other to finish an idea before continuing. The narrative comes perilously close to incoherence at times, but in Hine's conception, this becomes an expressive device. If you can manage to hear this in the context of its time, the word "modern" as it is used in relation to Jazz becomes meaningless.


Louis Armstrong - I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues - 1933




If the early recordings of Armstrong trace his burgeoning velocity and virtuosity on the trumpet, this 1933 classic marks his turn toward making fewer notes do his bidding. Written by Harold Arlen, who was an avid Jazz fan, this superior song is a perfect vehicle for Armstrong. Confronted with a melody that already swings as written, he is free to layer another level rhythmic invention upon it during his vocal chorus, which leads up to a trumpet break that manages to swing incredibly, though it consists of only a single note. But it is the precise placement of that note, and the way Armstrong manipulates the pitch and vibrato that make it so magical. What follows is one of his greatest solos and one that you might try to sing along with. It's an exhilarating trip! You'll have a lot of un with the long glissando he makes during the break midway through the chorus - he times it so he lands on the downbeat with no more time to spare. Again, singing along will help you realize how difficult these feats are. They will also become favorite melodies of yours - guaranteed. For a demonstration of how influential this recording was, listen to Billie Holiday's 1939 version of this same piece where she borrows a bit from Armstrong's vocal and a lot from his trumpet.


Duke Ellington - Showboat Shuffle - 1935



Throughout his life, Ellington was fascinated by trains, and no wonder - he spent thousands upon thousands of hours crisscrossing the country on them. Sleeping or waking, one could not get away from the incessant rhythms of the tracks and the engine, and Ellington used this as creative fodder for many compositions. This relatively overlooked 1935 piece begins with a repeated rolling, motor-like figure that gets passed around the band. It's the first of a number of ideas that Ellington keeps going in one fashion or another, and it's great fun to follow them. A hallmark of Ellington's band was the miraculous way his men expressed their individuality when soloing, and then submerging their sounds into the ensemble when necessary. Among the most original players in the band featured here were alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and the cornetist Rex Stewart, both of whom made sounds and invented melodies like no else. Listen for the way Ellington wrote for trombones toward the end of the piece - setting them off rhythmically against the rest of the band. One small slip and the whole effect would be ruined. Of course, they pull it off easily, illustrating the brilliant ensemble playing that was always an Ellingtonian trademark.


Count Basie - Time Out - 1937




When Count Basie's band made its first splash in 1937, many swing bands were in danger of becoming over-arranged and mechanistic. Fresh from years spent in and around the swinging provinces of Kansas City, Basie placed an emphasis on his loosely swinging rhythm section and a handful of brilliant soloists, who together created the sound of the band. In addition, the full horn sections were used in a spartan fashion and with great taste. Eddie Durham's "Time Out" is a wonderful example of the band's flowing and bluesy feel. After a brief statement from tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, the band's main soloist, tenor man Lester Young launches into a Zenlike solo that makes a perfect complement to the spare backgrounds allotted him. Composer Durham plays the electric guitar solo (one of the first in Jazz) and Buck Clayton plays the tastefully muted trumpet. Basie's piano solo is definitive; he used quiet space like most other pianists used notes. It is the pauses between phrases that define the shape of his solos. The band's aesthetic is based on rhythmic flow, which stemmed from the lessons provided by bassist Walter Page. He was their guru, imparting his musical philosophy of how to keep the rhythm section and the horns in perfect concord. Page's ever-moving and well-chosen notes underpin the entire performance.


Benny Carter - I'm Coming Virginia - 1938



This 1938 recording features Benny Carter's innovative and tremendously influential concept of writing for a saxophone section. With understatement and great taste (and that's a key element), he uses a panoply of compositional devices in the short space of a few minutes. Carter's arrangements kicks things off with a relatively intricate paraphrase of the melody (which was quite well known at the time), and once you listen to it a few times, you will begin to hear how Carter actually has the saxophone section accompanying itself with little figures that comment on the lead line. The level of playing here is superlative, with Carter not only leading the section, but also playing the alto solo (the tenor spot is by the Frenchman Alix Combelle). Bix Beiderbecke had made a famous recording of this piece nine years earlier, and Carter refers to it halfway through his solo. Hearing Carter improvise in the middle of his own arrangement gives us a sublime example of Carter's genius, which excels in the juxtaposition of both the spontaneous and the premeditated. As if all this weren't enough, there is a definitive solo by guitarist Django Reinhardt, who proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that a Jazz innovator could spring from foreign soil.


Benny Goodman -  Opus 1/2 - 1938




The Goodman small groups, among other things, pioneered a new way of playing fast tempos. Where there were a handful of contemporary Jazz players who managed to keep their coherence at great speeds, Goodman's units made the tempos sound slower than they actually were. This came as a result of their tremendous technical abilities and the unhurried way they moved from one eighth note to the next. Drummer Dave Tough proved that less could be more, even in Jazz percussion, by virtue of a relatively spare style, amplified by his great psychic energy. Listen for his subtle cymbal clickings and the bass drum, and how he implies all sorts of rhythmic shifts without ever resorting to anything louder than a whisper (extraordinarily well recorded for 1938). Pianist Teddy Wilson's solo is typically wonderful, but equally astonishing is his accompaniment as he provides the group's harmonic grounding, with bass notes that sound as full and thick as a tuba. He could sustain two, and at time three, levels of counterpoint simultaneously, while never making the music sound complex or dense. Both Goodman and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton had the equally rare skill to keep a rein on their virtuosic techniques, and clearly inspired each other to greater heights. They also knew how to accompany each other - listen for the quiet but swinging backgrounds they get going.


Coleman Hawkins - Body and Soul - 1939



Popular culture during the years surrounding World War II produced many works of remarkable sophistication. This rhapsodic and harmonically adventurous variation on a well-known tune of the day contains only the briefest allusions to its melody, yet was quite a hit after its issue late in 1939. Hawkins had just returned to the States after five years in Europe, and many questioned whether he would be able to regain his former prominence as one of the leading improvisers of the day. These sixty-four measures took care of that. His solo was transcribed and published internationally in music magazines and learned by players of every instrument. Listen to the way Hawkins makes his instrument sing. He played the cello as a young man and had a lifelong passion for the music of Bach, and you can hear echoes of that throughout the twists and turns he so seamlessly improvises. Hawkins's accomplishment in claiming anything in the realm of art as his own is one of his greatest feats, and his approach to saxophone playing still exerts an influence to this day.


Charlie Christian - Stompin' at the Savoy - 1941



This is a rare example of Jazz history actually being made and amazingly being captured by portable recording equipment. Guitarist Christian spent many fabled evenings of his all-too-short major-league career jamming to this heart's content in Harlem after finishing work downtown with Benny Goodman's band. Luckily, an undergraduate from Columbia University named Jerry Newman befriended a number of the young musicians who were actively involved in finding a new sound. Among the most prominent were drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Thelonious Monk, who can be heard along with Christian here. The leader of the band was the trumpeter Joe Guy, who plays with a gritty intensity. Not restricted to the short solos allotted to him in the Goodman group, here we have an expansive and positively brilliant Christian in 1941, playing in a way that set the stage for Jazz guitar for the next several decades. One of the interesting facets of his style is the way he alternates simpler, blues-like melodies on the main part of the tune with much more exploratory and chromatic ideas in its middle section (the bridge). Greatly inspired by his mentor, Lester Young, Christian plays with a much more markedly even rhythm that was the norm at the time. This was one of the facets of his style that later captivated Lennie Tristano and his acolytes. Also of special note are Monk's fluid piano playing and the subtle yet aggressive nature of Clarke's drumming, and how they coalesce when Christian enters into a single rhythmic unit. Asked in later years why he never used a guitar in his bands, Monk answered that Charlie Christian had spoiled him for all other guitarists. This recording shows why.


Art Tatum - Sweet Georgia Brown - 1941



Recorded in Harlem in 1941 at and after-hours club, this extended performance finds pianist Art Tatum in a much more relaxed and overtly humorous mood than he usually was in the recording studio. He is joined by a bassist and trumpeter Frankie Newton, one of the unsung giants of the '30s and '40s. Gifted with a huge sound and an exceptional range of expressive devices, Newton's playing has a dense quality, full of detail and contrast. Although Tatum had the ability to be a superlative ensemble player, most times he chose to ride over anything and everyone in his way. What a pleasure it is, then, to hear him letting the music breathe and giving his band mates a fighting chance against his avalanche of pianisms. Listen for the unending series of harmonic substitutions Tatum unfurls over the song's basic harmonies, and how quickly Newton fields them. The trumpeter also wisely opts not to try to outdo Tatum. The best-small-group recordings Tatum made were with men who gave him plenty of space, such as Newton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The relaxed atmosphere of the club and its inhabitants is audible throughout and makes one realize the tremendous number of magical musical movements that were never captures. Thankfully, this one was.



Lester Young & Nat King Cole Trio - Tea for Two - 1942




This 1942 recording is radical from any standpoint. Lester Young and Count Basie shared a passion for letting their solos breathe, permitting the space between their phrases to define the shape of the music. This historic, but still lesser known session (also featuring bassist Red Callender) pairs Young with the pianist Nat Cole - who had made a close study of Basie, Tatum, and Teddy Wilson on the way to forming his own innovative style. The interplay between Young and Cole is telepathic; they anticipate each other to the point that some phrases are merely suggested, but you get the feeling that they had been played in their entirety. (This sort of instant elision also plays a large role in the music of Tatum and Monk.) One of the many wonderful moments on this recording is the cat-and-mouse game the piano and saxophone play during the bass solo, and how their spare exchanges then slowly metamorphose into the full-fledged dialogue that concludes the performance. This was Lester Young's very first session as a leader and was made during an extended period in Los Angeles, during which time his band was appearing around town, at times backing Billie Holiday. It captures a unique moment in the evolution of his saxophone style from the pristine and airy music he made during the '30s to the more earthbound approach he developed in the '40s.



Sidney Bechet - Blue Horizon - 1944



This 1944 slow blues is at times like a Jazz Bolero, building inexorably toward a shattering climax, though Bechet lets things wind down to a peaceful ending. No one performed with greater intensity and inherent drama than Bechet, who here plays his original instrument, the clarinet. His tone is impossibly big in all registers, and he knows exactly when to pace his modulations through the instrument's various registers. The content of each chorus is wedded to the characteristic tonal quality of each register he's in. This may not sound like any great achievement, but most players play their "licks" regardless of where on their instruments they happen to be; not Bechet. The other instruments stay largely in the background, providing a simple backdrop for Bechet to play off of (listen for the arch bass - it gives the band a fat foundation that a pizzicato bass doesn't). Of special note is the way Bechet stitches his solo together with just a few melodic motifs that never become tiresome. Much has been made over the years about Bechet's vibrato, the breadth of which some consider off-putting. I find it to be an indispensable attribute of his musical personality. Bechet's sheer eloquence is a poetic reflection of the myriad wonders that coalesced in New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century and the young musicians who found expression for their genius in this truly American music.


Charlie Parker - Parker's Mood - 1948



This 1948 slow blues is one of Parker's most brilliant improvisations. Known for his disordered life and his superbly controlled music (for all his passion, Parker hardly ever lost his bearing when playing), which was based on supremely sophisticated rhythms and harmonies, Parker could improvise with the brilliance of a great composer, as he does throughout here. "Parker's Mood" is immediately recognizable by virtue of hits heraldic introduction and coda, which were the idea of pianist John Lewis, whose spare accompaniment and terse solo are also among Jazz's high-water marks. Lewis liked to use his piano in an orchestral fashion, and when you listen to him behind Parker - sometimes following, sometimes leading, and often perched between the two - it sounds like a spontaneously improvising big band. Parker's solo has been imitated so often in the last half century that its sheer originality and inevitability can be taken for granted. Each phrase leads directly into the next with a never-ending quality of developing variation.  Listen to the first four measures for a perfect example of a musical question and answer. One of the most delightful and subtle moments comes when Parker reenters after the piano solo and suggests a tempo twice as fast. Drummer Max Roach reacts with alacrity and taste, proving beyond a doubt that many of the canards about the obtrusiveness of modern Jazz drumming were just that. The piece ends with a dissonant piano chord that is resolved only by a lonely bass note so low that it was cut off of many previous versions of this performance; listen for it, it's a gem.


Duke Ellington - The Tattooed Bride - 1950



Although improvisation is an essential element of Jazz, there have been composers who have been able to create Jazz masterpieces with next to none of it. This is one of Ellington's greatest and least known extended compositions and it is ingenious, constructed out of a handful of small motifs that reappear throughout the piece. Ellington was known for the humorous and frequently tongue-in-cheek stories he would tell in introducing his music. The one he used frequently for this piece had to do with a groom's discovery on his wedding night that his bride's body is covered in tattoos. These were represented by the short back-and-forth squiggle-like figures that comprise part of the opening melodies. You can follow these motifs throughout the piece and see how they lead into new tempos and keys. This is one of the most ingeniously structured of Ellington's shorter extended pieces. Written during the lean, difficult, big-band period of the late '40s, "The Tattooed Bride" was rarely if ever resurrected by Ellington in later years as were many of his other important pieces. And that's a shame, for it's one of his best. The most prominent solos are by trombonist Lawrence Brown and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton (heard to great advantage in both ballad and swinging tempos), who plays with a level of virtuosity that surpassed even that of his main inspiration, Benny Goodman, which is certainly saying something. the band's longtime drummer, Sonny Greer, paces this 1950 performance with great restraint. Indeed, this was his last commercial recording session with the band.


Max Roach & Clifford Brown - Joy Spring - 1954




Jazz evolved at an incredible rate throughout the twentieth century, and the harmonic basis of this charmingly melodic tune would have been highly unusual just a decade earlier. It changes key in every one of its eight-bar sections, which certainly keeps the soloists on their toes. Trumpeter Clifford Brown had such a tremendous technique that he skirted the edge of prolixity on occasion, but not here. He plays with a series of sequences that bring to mind another master Jazz logician, Benny Carter. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of his solo and his trading with coleader drummer Max Roach (whose first big gig was with Carter's big band) is hearing how he edits himself down to the essentials. There is a conciseness about this inspired performance from 1954 that hearkens back to the earlier ears of Jazz, when recordings had a limit of slightly over three minutes, and players had to learn to express themselves succinctly. All of these players were raised on that music, and its lessons show. Like so many great Jazz works, this performance abounds in details that only reveal themselves upon repeated listening.


Miles Davis - The Man I Love - 1954



Out of the helter-skelter virtuosity that defined so much Jazz following the advent of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-forties came an equal and opposite reaction. Trumpeter Miles Davis had a passion for space in his music, and this version of a Gershwin classic is spartan compared to what had been the norm just a few years earlier. After vibraphonist Milt Jackson's introduction, Davis states the melody with his classic muted sound, sculpting the notes out of the air with great delicacy. Then the tempo is doubled, and a series of wonderfully melodic solos follow. The pièce de resistance is pianist Thelonious Monk's masterpiece of swing and comic timing. He feigns confusion with the double meter (remember that Monk had played for years with Coleman Hawkins, who had introduced the concept of playing this song in this fashion), and then miraculously "finds" his place precisely at the point during the bridge where the lyrics refer to someone finding someone. (Monk was known for his ironic and powerful sense of humor.) He then proceeds to pile it on like gangbusters, without a speck of the "difficulty" he had before. The bass and drum work of Percy Heath and Kenny Clark (by then already members of the Modern Jazz Quartet) is at once tremendously propulsive and intense, yet played at a restrained dynamic level. Davis was just as the cusp of his ascent to Jazz immortality (his quintet with John Coltrane and the orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans were still on the horizon) when this recording was made on Christmas Eve 1954.


Charles Mingus - Haitian Fight Song - 1957



Like Jelly roll Morton, John Lewis, and Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus did not need a large ensemble to express his musical vision. Here, he uses trombonist Jimmy Knepper and alto saxophonist Shafi Hadi in the front line. Mingus was a virtuoso bassist who stayed as far away as he could from the clichés that other bassists played. He starts this roiling piece off with an extended, vocally inflected a cappella unaccompanied introduction and then sets up a hypnotic mood with an ostinato figure. Everything about this piece flies in the face of the Jazz conventions of 1957. There is ensemble improvisation, meter changes, shouting (from the leader), and the wild, fresh feeling that Mingus always desired. He would actually stop a tune if he felt that one of his soloists was playing too many clichés. That is certainly not the case here. Knepper's solo is a masterpiece of melodic construction, and his playing was a welcome break from the slew of J.J. Johnson clones who were then receiving the bulk of attention. But the excellence of the individual solos is not what Mingus' music is about. What it is about is the overall idiom. Repeated listening will reveal how all the parts here fit together into a unified whole. Mingus told writer Nat Hentoff that the piece could have also been called "Afro-American Fighting Song," and that "I can't play it right unless I'm thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There's sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling 'I told them! I hope somebody heard me.'"


Modern Jazz Quartet - Fontessa - 1956



Pianist John Lewis made a close study of European classical music (most notably Bach) early in his career. He took the lessons he learned and adapted them to the blues and Jazz that were at the root of his musical identity. He had little use for the melody-solos-melody format that continues to define the great majority of Jazz performances, and employed it sparingly. This extended composition reveals his preference for a well ordered sequence of musical events. It is based on a very simple set of motifs, which are then developed in a compelling set of variations. With only three other instrumentalists - vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay - Lewis was somehow able to deploy these spare resources without the slightest sense of limitation. This was because each of them was not only a gifted soloist (Jackson was truly brilliant), but an equally superlative ensemble player. Notice how Lewis uses the standard walking bass and drum accompaniment sparingly, and the tremendously touch Kay has on the drums. This also happens to be one of the best recording balance ever achieved and is a sobering reminder that with all our digital technology, these analog recordings from 1956 have yet to be surpassed. Listen for the strange section during the extended cymbal solo when everything seems to be recapitulating in reverse. This piece catches one of Jazz's greatest ensembles at an early zenith in its long career.


Ornette Coleman - Ramblin' - 1959



This rolling, blues-inflected piece is a wonderful introduction to the music of the man who championed what was called free Jazz. In reality, there was no more or less freedom in Ornette Coleman's music than there was in that of any of the other Jazz greats. The clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, for instance, had a similar attitude toward chord changes within a different context, to be sure, but he felt no need to oblige them if they got in the way of his point. Part of Coleman's importance was that he emphasized different aspects of the music than had others. Listen for the perfect unison playing from Coleman and cornetist Don Cherry. Their mastery of intonation was such that they could veer off into microtones at will, which gave their music a unique quality. Coleman's keening sound is the perfect vehicle for his associative blues playing. It is clear that both he and Charry are master storytellers and deeply understand the narrative structure of classic Jazz, even if their harmonic system lies outside of what was then the norm. Bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins provide an incessantly swinging and varied pattern throughout. Like the early music of Charlie Parker, it is difficult in hindsight to hear what all the controversy was about when this selection was recorded in 1959.


Cecil Taylor - Port of Call - 1961



It's instructive to listen to this after "Fifty-Seven Varieties" for the similarity of Hine's and Taylor's wild virtuosity, desire to walk a creative tightrope, and disassembling of previous conventions. Listen for the contrast between Taylor's left hand, which keeps us connected to the harmonies of the piece, and his right hand, which ranges far and wide, sometimes into what almost seems like a different piece altogether. The magic is in the way that Taylor manages to make it all hang together. The drummer is Dennis Charles and the bassist is Buell Neidlinger, who wrote of this 1961 performance: "Cecil is highly conscious of theatre. His compositions are organized by juxtaposing elements of different moods against each other like actors on a stage. Moreover, he ahs the ability to order these elements so that the entire piece moves from the very first note to the last in an inevitable way. 'Port of Call' is a good example of this. It is a little journey through another world. The colors are orange and brown. The mood (mode) is set by the first chord and is dissipated by the last chord."


Muhal Richard Abrams - Hearinga - 1989




This challenging piece from 1989 reflect the ever shifting and eclectic tastes of its composer, pianist and musical master builder Muhal Richard Abrams. It is reminiscent of the way that Arnold Schoenberg conflated the symphonic world of Brahms in his first Chamber Symphony. What once took forty-five minutes and four movements could now occur in a quarter of the time. Once you get used to the brevity of Abram's episodes and become familiar with the various themes, a coherent and, taken in context, relatively expansive musical narrative begins to unfold. Abrams excels in making the transitions from one section to another. The performance benefits greatly from the expert duo of drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Fred Hopkins, who manage the various metric hurdles with alacrity, swinging all the while. Note how the solos of trumpeter Jack Walrath, tenor saxophonist Patience Higgins, and the composer all meld into the overall concept and flow one into the other while retaining the feeling of spontaneity.



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