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Onyx Brass - Onyx Noir Rating: 3-5 out of 5 A highly accomplished and very sophisticated piece of work. An interesting and innovative recording with much to recommend it and plenty of fine moments to enjoy.

Onyx Brass

“Onyx Noir”

(NMC Recordings NMC D237)

Niall Keatley, Alan Thomas – trumpets
Andrew Sutton –  french horn
Amos Miller – trombone
David Gordon-Shute - tuba

Onyx Brass is a five piece brass ensemble that specialises in performing contemporary chamber music. The group, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018, is well known for supporting new music and has commissioned and performed the world premières over 150 new works from a wide range of composers including such well known names as Michael Nyman, John Tavener and Steve Martland.

Onyx Brass has toured worldwide and been featured regularly on BBC Radio 3. The ensemble also see music education as an important part of their work and have regularly led workshops and master-classes at educational establishments all across the UK and further afield, including the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Onyx have recorded a number of discs in which they interpret the music of classical composers from various epochs. One, “Time to Time” from 2011, features the voice of the American baritone Mark Steele. Onyx work regularly with singers, particularly choirs both professional and amateur.

Away from the group the individual members of Onyx Brass are active orchestral musicians with permanent posts in such prestigious institutions as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the English Chamber Orchestra. Individually and collectively they are well respected throughout the classical world with the esteemed conductor and educator Richard Dickins among the many to sing their praises.

To celebrate their 25th anniversary the ever adventurous Onyx Brass explore the world of jazz with a new album, “Onyx Noir”, that celebrates the work of British jazz composers. The seeds of the project date right back to 1994 as trombonist Amos Miller explains in the album’s liner notes;
“In 1994 I was a participant in the Banff International Jazz Summer School, where one of the tutors was Kenny Wheeler. I was completely smitten by both his music and his playing, and thought that, one day, I might have the courage to approach him to write a piece for our newly formed quintet. Fast forward to 2012, when I was fortunate enough to be playing on Gwilym Simcock’s amazing album “Instrumation”, and this long held idea was suddenly given life. Having persuaded Gwilym to agree to write something for us I was then chatting to the drummer Martin France at a tea break and mentioned my long held dream to ask Kenny to write a brass quintet piece. Martin immediately gave me Kenny’s phone number and said ‘call him now, and tell him I said so!’.
Kenny was grace personified and agreed, with the caveat that it might take him some time. Less than three weeks later he phoned back with the news that he’d already finished it! Having Kenny and Gwilym on board made it easier to approach the other legends on this album, all of whom have been astoundingly generous and enthusiastic about the project. The commissioning side of this project has been entirely self funded by Onyx Brass and, we would like to put on record our heartfelt gratitude to the composers for their generosity, both of time and talent.
There is currently a golden era in British jazz and we felt that it was important, not just from a brass chamber music perspective, but also from a wider classical music point of view, that this well of talent should be tapped to create music in a jazz idiom, using each composer’s unique understanding of melody, harmony and rhythm, but playable by classical musicians. The commissioning brief for each composer was simple; something around five minutes and do whatever you want! We are completely thrilled by the results, and hope you have as much fun listening to it as we have had playing it.
This album is dedicated to the memory of Kenny Wheeler.”

As Miller says the commissioned composers have bought fully into the project and the CD booklet includes brief insights from the writers into their individual pieces. The album is subtitled “Jazz Works for Brass Quintet”.

The album commences with Simcock’s “Stomper”, the pianist and composer’s first piece for brass quintet despite Simcock’s habitual straddling of the jazz / classical boundaries. Simcock found writing for an ensemble containing a french horn (an instrument that he also plays himself) particularly interesting and his piece concentrates on the rhythmic possibilities of the ensemble with Sutton’s french horn and Gordon-Shute’s tuba both playing a prominent part in the arrangement. Yet this is still unmistakably a classical ensemble, there are none of the pumping grooves and strident soloing of the New Orleans brass band tradition, an area of music that is becoming an increasingly overcrowded field. Indeed Onyx’s rather more subtle use of rhythm and counterpoint on this two part composition from Simcock makes for a refreshing change with the focus very much on ensemble playing rather than conventional jazz soloing.

Next up is “Holy Chalcedony”, written by the supremely versatile electric bass player Laurence Cottle. “Chalcedony is the technical word for Onyx” explains Cottle “and this gospel infused tune takes us on a short walk from a village church to Funksville, Arizona”. As its composer suggests there’s an authentically church like feel to the opening of the piece with its warm and elegant horn voicings conveying a suitably ecclesiastical atmosphere. The pace subsequently quickens, with the tuba again playing a prominent role, as the tune takes on more of an American gospel feel, whilst still studiously avoiding the New Orleans marching band clichés.
Onyx Brass have recently issued a video to accompany this track which can be viewed here;
: https://youtu.be/NZcweYdofns

Miller provides the liner notes for the late Wheeler’s “1 for 5”, a typically playful and enigmatic Kenny title. The piece is divided into two distinct movements that re-imagine two of his earlier pieces, “Pretty Liddle Waltz” and that modern day jazz standard “Everybody’s Song But My Own”.
As Miller points out “harmonically, rhythmically and melodically they could only be from the Wheeler pen”. The arrangements and sumptuous and offer ample evidence of “Wheeler’s deep understanding of brass instruments”. Sharp eared jazz listeners will doubtless recognise the melodies of the earlier works.

Like Simcock the saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes is another artist who transcends the jazz/classical divide, notably with her genre blurring Emulsion Festival, now in its sixth year.
Her piece is “The Mighty Pencil”, which she dedicates to the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting and of which she says;
“I wrote this piece to encourage the fine members of Onyx Brass to have fun with incorporating improvisation into the mix! And pencils are essential to creatives everywhere…”
The members of Onyx rise to the improvisatory challenge on a piece with a freely structured intro but still possessing plenty of recognisably written melodies, these encouraging some excellent interplay, some of it no doubt improvised, between the members of the quintet.

Trombonist Mark Nightingale’s piece “For Rosie” was originally written as part of a suite for jazz trombone and chamber orchestra for the International Trombone Festival in Aarhus, Denmark in 2009. The piece is dedicated to the composer’s daughter (then aged 8) and has been re-arranged specifically for Onyx Brass. Gently interweaving melody lines lead to a statement of the main theme by french horn. The mood is warm, reflecting the tenderness of a father towards his young daughter. Nightingale’s notes make reference to “a cascading interlude and key change” plus “a short recapitulation rising through a crescendo before the coda, in which the music gradually melts down to a final tonic chord”.

Pianist Jason Rebello appears to have taken the commission brief literally. Of his piece “Inevitable Outcome” he says “the music was allowed flow and be what it wanted to be, and it is the inevitable outcome of my life experiences to date”. Rebello is something of a musical polymath whose career has embraced jazz, soul and rock (most famously as part of Sting’s band) but he comes from a classical background, a fact that is reflected in the sophistication of his writing here. His piece is rich in terms of both melody and rhythm and makes effective use of the quintet’s formidable technical abilities.

Tuba player David Powell is best known to jazz listeners as a member of the mighty Loose Tubes but he also has a parallel classical career playing in various London based classical ensembles. The title of “Symbols at your Door” comes from the childhood counting song “Green Grow the Rushes-o” and was chosen simply because Onyx Brass has five members. Powell plays down his abilities as a composer stating that “the piece grew out of material from a simple choral psalm setting I wrote a few years ago”. There’s a beautiful, calming quality about the piece, which includes a delightfully meditative tuba solo from Gordon-Shute. Powell also includes “a little triple time tango section, based on a chord sequence from my musical hero Astor Piazolla”. It’s so skilfully integrated that there’s no discernible interruption to the mood and flow of this unexpectedly lovely and contemplative piece.

Pianist Liam Noble admits that his “Imaginary Dance” is his first ever through composed piece.  “Finding structural devices to replace the ‘shut your eyes and listen’ approach of improvisation was an interesting experience” he observes. The writing was dictated by “imagining what a dancer might like to happen next” he explains. Gordon-Shute’s tuba again plays a key role in an arrangement that gravitates from the contemplative to the lively and exuberant. “Onyx Brass dance through this with impeccable and raucous aplomb” notes the composer.

The album takes its title from trumpeter and composer Guy Barker’s piece “Onyx Noir”. The composition has its roots in Barker’s love of cinema and particularly film noir. Inspired by his fondness for the genre and of the soundtracks that accompanied the films Barker wrote an ambitious mini-suite for orchestra and jazz ensemble called “Sounds in Black and White” that appeared on his 2002 cinema themed album “Soundtrack”. Faced with a commission for a brass quintet Barker found himself drawn back to this musical area to create a piece “that was atmospheric and smoky, but still quite intense”. Onyx Brass realise Barker’s ambitions admirably in a sumptuous performance with the five instruments blending and dovetailing seamlessly on an arrangement with an appropriately noirish quality that expertly navigates a number of thematic and emotional variations with great aplomb. The tuba again plays an important role but, as is befitting in a composition by Barker, there’s some excellent trumpet playing too, although it’s impossible to single out individuals.

Saxophonist Mick Foster’s “Hamlet Stories” compresses three short movements into a single performance. These are separated into three tracks on the CD. The first “combines lyrical thematic ideas and spiky rhythms”, the second picks up one of the themes to create “a rhythmic riff idea”, while the third “contains a stately tune, which builds in volume whilst being heard in several keys”.Apparently the inspiration for the work is not Shakespeare but instead the name of the main shopping street in Westcliff on Sea where Foster lives!

Similarly bassoonist/saxophonist Colin Skinner presents a three part composition “Firebox”, with each movement being named after a different steam locomotive. The first movement, “Hetton Colliery Lyon” even includes suitable sound effects (I wouldn’t like to speculate as to the source of these) as Onyx brass depict one of the earliest British locomotives toiling in the coal yard. It’s a surprisingly melodic piece which combines an underlying bluesiness with a nod to the Northern brass band tradition.
Skinner’s individual movements are more clearly delineated than Foster’s had been. “Sunny South Sam” is so called after a nickname for the Southern Railway and depicts one of the company’s locomotives hauling a train to the seaside. The mood is suitably bucolic and nostalgic, like an old picture postcard brought to life.
Finally we hear “The Federal Express”, named after a through train linking Boston, MA and Washington DC. A slick, breezy arrangement summons up images of the service steaming through the night as the passengers enjoy the luxury of the Pullman coaches. The music mimics American big band jazz and the ‘Jazz Age’ with great aplomb, the five instruments delivering an admirably full sound on one of the most accessible and swinging pieces on the album.

Guitarist Mike Walker, Simcock’s colleague in the acclaimed Anglo-American quartet The Impossible Gentlemen was approached by Miller to do an arrangement of the TIG piece “When You Hold Her”.
In Walker’s words;
“Creativity got the better of me and it ended up being an entirely different piece with nods to the old piece. The title speaks for itself. Onyx Brass play it beautifully”.
And he’s right, Onyx Brass play Walker’s gorgeous melody with studied cool and considerable elegance. There’s an almost hymn like sense of calm about the piece, allied to a gentle sense of yearning. It also sounds unmistakably English.

Onyx Brass have been described as “the classiest brass ensemble in Britain” and I have no quibble with the classical music reviewers who have made this claim for the quintet. I also have the utmost respect for the opinions of Richard Dickins, a great admirer of the ensemble and their work.

There’s no doubt that “Onyx Noir” is a highly accomplished and very sophisticated piece of work. The playing is superb throughout and the quality of the recording is further enhanced by the engineering and production team of David Lefeber and Suzanne Stanzeleit.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is essentially a classical recording and despite the impeccable jazz credentials of the featured composers committed jazz listeners may find themselves missing many of the conventional jazz virtues, such as prolonged instrumental solos and a sense of swing.

For all the rhythmic virtuosity and variation brought to the group by Miller and Gordon-Shute I still found myself longing for the presence of bass and drums to give the music a kick up the backside, and sometimes for a chordal instrument, such as a piano, too.

Ultimately, for all its class and skill regular jazz listeners may find “Onyx Noir” a little too polite, and at seventy six minutes arguably a little over-long too. Nevertheless it’s an interesting and innovative recording with much to recommend it and plenty of fine moments to enjoy.

 

 

Onyx Noir

Onyx Brass

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

Onyx Noir

A highly accomplished and very sophisticated piece of work. An interesting and innovative recording with much to recommend it and plenty of fine moments to enjoy.

Onyx Brass

“Onyx Noir”

(NMC Recordings NMC D237)

Niall Keatley, Alan Thomas – trumpets
Andrew Sutton –  french horn
Amos Miller – trombone
David Gordon-Shute - tuba

Onyx Brass is a five piece brass ensemble that specialises in performing contemporary chamber music. The group, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018, is well known for supporting new music and has commissioned and performed the world premières over 150 new works from a wide range of composers including such well known names as Michael Nyman, John Tavener and Steve Martland.

Onyx Brass has toured worldwide and been featured regularly on BBC Radio 3. The ensemble also see music education as an important part of their work and have regularly led workshops and master-classes at educational establishments all across the UK and further afield, including the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Onyx have recorded a number of discs in which they interpret the music of classical composers from various epochs. One, “Time to Time” from 2011, features the voice of the American baritone Mark Steele. Onyx work regularly with singers, particularly choirs both professional and amateur.

Away from the group the individual members of Onyx Brass are active orchestral musicians with permanent posts in such prestigious institutions as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the English Chamber Orchestra. Individually and collectively they are well respected throughout the classical world with the esteemed conductor and educator Richard Dickins among the many to sing their praises.

To celebrate their 25th anniversary the ever adventurous Onyx Brass explore the world of jazz with a new album, “Onyx Noir”, that celebrates the work of British jazz composers. The seeds of the project date right back to 1994 as trombonist Amos Miller explains in the album’s liner notes;
“In 1994 I was a participant in the Banff International Jazz Summer School, where one of the tutors was Kenny Wheeler. I was completely smitten by both his music and his playing, and thought that, one day, I might have the courage to approach him to write a piece for our newly formed quintet. Fast forward to 2012, when I was fortunate enough to be playing on Gwilym Simcock’s amazing album “Instrumation”, and this long held idea was suddenly given life. Having persuaded Gwilym to agree to write something for us I was then chatting to the drummer Martin France at a tea break and mentioned my long held dream to ask Kenny to write a brass quintet piece. Martin immediately gave me Kenny’s phone number and said ‘call him now, and tell him I said so!’.
Kenny was grace personified and agreed, with the caveat that it might take him some time. Less than three weeks later he phoned back with the news that he’d already finished it! Having Kenny and Gwilym on board made it easier to approach the other legends on this album, all of whom have been astoundingly generous and enthusiastic about the project. The commissioning side of this project has been entirely self funded by Onyx Brass and, we would like to put on record our heartfelt gratitude to the composers for their generosity, both of time and talent.
There is currently a golden era in British jazz and we felt that it was important, not just from a brass chamber music perspective, but also from a wider classical music point of view, that this well of talent should be tapped to create music in a jazz idiom, using each composer’s unique understanding of melody, harmony and rhythm, but playable by classical musicians. The commissioning brief for each composer was simple; something around five minutes and do whatever you want! We are completely thrilled by the results, and hope you have as much fun listening to it as we have had playing it.
This album is dedicated to the memory of Kenny Wheeler.”

As Miller says the commissioned composers have bought fully into the project and the CD booklet includes brief insights from the writers into their individual pieces. The album is subtitled “Jazz Works for Brass Quintet”.

The album commences with Simcock’s “Stomper”, the pianist and composer’s first piece for brass quintet despite Simcock’s habitual straddling of the jazz / classical boundaries. Simcock found writing for an ensemble containing a french horn (an instrument that he also plays himself) particularly interesting and his piece concentrates on the rhythmic possibilities of the ensemble with Sutton’s french horn and Gordon-Shute’s tuba both playing a prominent part in the arrangement. Yet this is still unmistakably a classical ensemble, there are none of the pumping grooves and strident soloing of the New Orleans brass band tradition, an area of music that is becoming an increasingly overcrowded field. Indeed Onyx’s rather more subtle use of rhythm and counterpoint on this two part composition from Simcock makes for a refreshing change with the focus very much on ensemble playing rather than conventional jazz soloing.

Next up is “Holy Chalcedony”, written by the supremely versatile electric bass player Laurence Cottle. “Chalcedony is the technical word for Onyx” explains Cottle “and this gospel infused tune takes us on a short walk from a village church to Funksville, Arizona”. As its composer suggests there’s an authentically church like feel to the opening of the piece with its warm and elegant horn voicings conveying a suitably ecclesiastical atmosphere. The pace subsequently quickens, with the tuba again playing a prominent role, as the tune takes on more of an American gospel feel, whilst still studiously avoiding the New Orleans marching band clichés.
Onyx Brass have recently issued a video to accompany this track which can be viewed here;
: https://youtu.be/NZcweYdofns

Miller provides the liner notes for the late Wheeler’s “1 for 5”, a typically playful and enigmatic Kenny title. The piece is divided into two distinct movements that re-imagine two of his earlier pieces, “Pretty Liddle Waltz” and that modern day jazz standard “Everybody’s Song But My Own”.
As Miller points out “harmonically, rhythmically and melodically they could only be from the Wheeler pen”. The arrangements and sumptuous and offer ample evidence of “Wheeler’s deep understanding of brass instruments”. Sharp eared jazz listeners will doubtless recognise the melodies of the earlier works.

Like Simcock the saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes is another artist who transcends the jazz/classical divide, notably with her genre blurring Emulsion Festival, now in its sixth year.
Her piece is “The Mighty Pencil”, which she dedicates to the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting and of which she says;
“I wrote this piece to encourage the fine members of Onyx Brass to have fun with incorporating improvisation into the mix! And pencils are essential to creatives everywhere…”
The members of Onyx rise to the improvisatory challenge on a piece with a freely structured intro but still possessing plenty of recognisably written melodies, these encouraging some excellent interplay, some of it no doubt improvised, between the members of the quintet.

Trombonist Mark Nightingale’s piece “For Rosie” was originally written as part of a suite for jazz trombone and chamber orchestra for the International Trombone Festival in Aarhus, Denmark in 2009. The piece is dedicated to the composer’s daughter (then aged 8) and has been re-arranged specifically for Onyx Brass. Gently interweaving melody lines lead to a statement of the main theme by french horn. The mood is warm, reflecting the tenderness of a father towards his young daughter. Nightingale’s notes make reference to “a cascading interlude and key change” plus “a short recapitulation rising through a crescendo before the coda, in which the music gradually melts down to a final tonic chord”.

Pianist Jason Rebello appears to have taken the commission brief literally. Of his piece “Inevitable Outcome” he says “the music was allowed flow and be what it wanted to be, and it is the inevitable outcome of my life experiences to date”. Rebello is something of a musical polymath whose career has embraced jazz, soul and rock (most famously as part of Sting’s band) but he comes from a classical background, a fact that is reflected in the sophistication of his writing here. His piece is rich in terms of both melody and rhythm and makes effective use of the quintet’s formidable technical abilities.

Tuba player David Powell is best known to jazz listeners as a member of the mighty Loose Tubes but he also has a parallel classical career playing in various London based classical ensembles. The title of “Symbols at your Door” comes from the childhood counting song “Green Grow the Rushes-o” and was chosen simply because Onyx Brass has five members. Powell plays down his abilities as a composer stating that “the piece grew out of material from a simple choral psalm setting I wrote a few years ago”. There’s a beautiful, calming quality about the piece, which includes a delightfully meditative tuba solo from Gordon-Shute. Powell also includes “a little triple time tango section, based on a chord sequence from my musical hero Astor Piazolla”. It’s so skilfully integrated that there’s no discernible interruption to the mood and flow of this unexpectedly lovely and contemplative piece.

Pianist Liam Noble admits that his “Imaginary Dance” is his first ever through composed piece.  “Finding structural devices to replace the ‘shut your eyes and listen’ approach of improvisation was an interesting experience” he observes. The writing was dictated by “imagining what a dancer might like to happen next” he explains. Gordon-Shute’s tuba again plays a key role in an arrangement that gravitates from the contemplative to the lively and exuberant. “Onyx Brass dance through this with impeccable and raucous aplomb” notes the composer.

The album takes its title from trumpeter and composer Guy Barker’s piece “Onyx Noir”. The composition has its roots in Barker’s love of cinema and particularly film noir. Inspired by his fondness for the genre and of the soundtracks that accompanied the films Barker wrote an ambitious mini-suite for orchestra and jazz ensemble called “Sounds in Black and White” that appeared on his 2002 cinema themed album “Soundtrack”. Faced with a commission for a brass quintet Barker found himself drawn back to this musical area to create a piece “that was atmospheric and smoky, but still quite intense”. Onyx Brass realise Barker’s ambitions admirably in a sumptuous performance with the five instruments blending and dovetailing seamlessly on an arrangement with an appropriately noirish quality that expertly navigates a number of thematic and emotional variations with great aplomb. The tuba again plays an important role but, as is befitting in a composition by Barker, there’s some excellent trumpet playing too, although it’s impossible to single out individuals.

Saxophonist Mick Foster’s “Hamlet Stories” compresses three short movements into a single performance. These are separated into three tracks on the CD. The first “combines lyrical thematic ideas and spiky rhythms”, the second picks up one of the themes to create “a rhythmic riff idea”, while the third “contains a stately tune, which builds in volume whilst being heard in several keys”.Apparently the inspiration for the work is not Shakespeare but instead the name of the main shopping street in Westcliff on Sea where Foster lives!

Similarly bassoonist/saxophonist Colin Skinner presents a three part composition “Firebox”, with each movement being named after a different steam locomotive. The first movement, “Hetton Colliery Lyon” even includes suitable sound effects (I wouldn’t like to speculate as to the source of these) as Onyx brass depict one of the earliest British locomotives toiling in the coal yard. It’s a surprisingly melodic piece which combines an underlying bluesiness with a nod to the Northern brass band tradition.
Skinner’s individual movements are more clearly delineated than Foster’s had been. “Sunny South Sam” is so called after a nickname for the Southern Railway and depicts one of the company’s locomotives hauling a train to the seaside. The mood is suitably bucolic and nostalgic, like an old picture postcard brought to life.
Finally we hear “The Federal Express”, named after a through train linking Boston, MA and Washington DC. A slick, breezy arrangement summons up images of the service steaming through the night as the passengers enjoy the luxury of the Pullman coaches. The music mimics American big band jazz and the ‘Jazz Age’ with great aplomb, the five instruments delivering an admirably full sound on one of the most accessible and swinging pieces on the album.

Guitarist Mike Walker, Simcock’s colleague in the acclaimed Anglo-American quartet The Impossible Gentlemen was approached by Miller to do an arrangement of the TIG piece “When You Hold Her”.
In Walker’s words;
“Creativity got the better of me and it ended up being an entirely different piece with nods to the old piece. The title speaks for itself. Onyx Brass play it beautifully”.
And he’s right, Onyx Brass play Walker’s gorgeous melody with studied cool and considerable elegance. There’s an almost hymn like sense of calm about the piece, allied to a gentle sense of yearning. It also sounds unmistakably English.

Onyx Brass have been described as “the classiest brass ensemble in Britain” and I have no quibble with the classical music reviewers who have made this claim for the quintet. I also have the utmost respect for the opinions of Richard Dickins, a great admirer of the ensemble and their work.

There’s no doubt that “Onyx Noir” is a highly accomplished and very sophisticated piece of work. The playing is superb throughout and the quality of the recording is further enhanced by the engineering and production team of David Lefeber and Suzanne Stanzeleit.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is essentially a classical recording and despite the impeccable jazz credentials of the featured composers committed jazz listeners may find themselves missing many of the conventional jazz virtues, such as prolonged instrumental solos and a sense of swing.

For all the rhythmic virtuosity and variation brought to the group by Miller and Gordon-Shute I still found myself longing for the presence of bass and drums to give the music a kick up the backside, and sometimes for a chordal instrument, such as a piano, too.

Ultimately, for all its class and skill regular jazz listeners may find “Onyx Noir” a little too polite, and at seventy six minutes arguably a little over-long too. Nevertheless it’s an interesting and innovative recording with much to recommend it and plenty of fine moments to enjoy.

 

 


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