by Ian Mann
September 07, 2013
An excellent first festival from Black Mountain Jazz. The feedback from both audience members and performers has been almost universally positive.
Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 01/09/2013.
Photograph of Gilad Atzmon sourced from http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
The second day of this impressive and admirably diverse festival was blessed with slightly warmer weather and increased audience numbers. Whilst Saturday had been thoroughly enjoyable with the bands involved producing some excellent music there was definitely more of a “festival buzz” about the Sunday.
The early morning “community slot” was filled by the locally based New Era Reborn Brass Band, a nine piece ensemble led by trumpeter Ceri Williams that featured some of South Wales leading jazz musicians, among them trombonist Gareth Roberts and drummer Greg Evans plus young rising stars such as tenor saxophonist Bryn Davies.
Once again the early start meant I only managed to catch the last knockings of their set, an enjoyable New Orleans style number called “I Like It Like That”. The band’s line up is pretty flexible with members flitting in and out of the ranks and a more detailed review of an earlier performance can be found in my coverage of Torfaen Jazz Society’s Mini Festival (24/09/2011).
This is a hugely entertaining band who are very good at what they do and also provide a platform for younger players, thus they were perfect for this spot on the programme.
MARTHA SKILTON / BEN TREACHER QUINTET
Saxophonist Martha Skilton, daughter of wall2wall promoter Mike, is a sometime member of the New Era Brass Band. A graduate of the Royal Welsh college of Music and Drama in Cardiff she has appeared at BMJ many times either leading her own groups or sitting in with other performers.
Today’s ticketed performance in the Club Room saw her co-leading a quintet alongside alto saxophonist Ben Treacher, a more recent RWCMD graduate who had previously appeared at BMJ as part of the RWCMD Big Band. The twin saxophonists were ably supported by a house band again assembled by drummer Phill Redfox O’Sullivan and once more featuring guitarist Jason Ball. The bass role was taken by Aidan Thorne, his stand up acoustic bass replacing the six string electric deployed by Alun Vaughan the previous day.
Skilton knows the playing of Ball and O’Sullivan well, both had been part of the quintet she led at the club back in 2010, a performance reviewed elsewhere on this site. Once again the programme was drawn from the “real book” repertoire and there were one or two overlaps but much like Skilton’s previous performance this was a hugely enjoyable set with interesting song choices and some excellent playing.
The first number, a modal composition, was unannounced but served to introduce the voices of the two saxophonists with Treacher on alto and Skilton on soprano alongside further solos from Ball and Thorne.
Introduced by a passage of solo guitar Freddie Hubbard’s evergreen “Little Sunflower” is a particular Skilton favourite, the irresistible melody here adorned by surprisingly rugged and probing solos from both saxophonists and a further substantial contribution from the excellent Ball. Although she’d brought her tenor along with her Skilton didn’t pick it up and played the whole set on soprano, an instrument she seems to be specialising on these days.
Skilton’s soprano introduced “Zoltan’s Dream” with subsequent solos coming from Treacher and Ball. It was the guitarist who announced the next item, the ballad “Insomnia” which featured a delightful blending of the saxophones on the theme and subsequent eloquent solos from Ball, Treacher, Skilton and Thorne.
Next came a Wayne Shorter tune that I’m pretty sure was the enduring “Footprints” with both saxophonists producing flattened notes and a certain wilful dissonance. Skilton soloed first followed by Ball, Treacher and Thorne.
Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” added a pleasing Latin element with solos from Ball and Skilton plus a feature for O’Sullivan at the drums. The sticksman’s playing had been crisp and receptive and here he added extra colour by placing a tambourine on top of his hi hat, a nice touch.
The late Michael Brecker’s blues, “Timeline” had been included in Skilton’s 2010 performance. Here the two horns doubled up effectively on the theme with Treacher, Ball and Thorne all taking solo before the closing dialogue between Skilton’s soprano and O’Sullivan’s drums.
“Groovy Samba”, written by Sergio Mendes for the Cannonball Adderley album “Cannonball’s Bossa Nova” rounded off this enjoyable Sunday lunchtime set in breezy style with features for Treacher and Ball.
Today’s performance was a timely reminder of just how good a jazz saxophonist Martha Skilton is, recent projects have seen her playing in a variety of other contexts. Ben Treacher confirmed himself as a player of enormous promise and was given far more room to express himself than within the confines of the College Big Band. He also leads his own quartet in the Cardiff area. As on the previous day the house trio offered excellent support to the leaders and also found plenty to say on their own account. All in all an excellent start to the second day.
606 GOSPEL SINGERS
BMJ has established links with London’s 606 Jazz Club with Sarah Gillespie doing much to foster the partnership between the two very different institutions. The 606 Gospel Singers are regular performers at the London club, often appearing on Sunday lunchtimes but today Mike Skilton persuaded them to travel a little further.
For many of BMJ’s regulars (myself included) the Singers represented a bit of a step out of their comfort zone. However once again here was proof that jazz is indeed a broad church. Today’s show was billed as “a gospel tribute to Stevie Wonder” and the programme mixed Wonder classics with a selection of more traditional gospel material. The range of sounds generated by four vocalists and just one instrumentalist was hugely impressive and the exuberance of the performance quickly won over any doubters as the 606ers got everybody up on their feet, singing along and dancing.
The group is led by Tracey Campbell, a recent interviewee on Sebastian Scotney’s London Jazz news blog. Today’s line up also featured singers Hermione Thomas, Yolanda Antonio and Emily plus instrumentalist Andre Gabriel who alternated between keyboards and acoustic guitar.
This being a Wonder tribute the group started with “Superstition” featuring the big, big voice of Emily alongside Gabriel’s funky keyboards and sampled drums. “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” saw Gabriel switching to guitar and leader Campbell taking over the lead vocal. However impressive as all the singers were individually it was the incredible harmony vocals that were really stunning and with Campbell directing the show us audience members were encouraged to join in. Audience participation was mandatory pretty much from the start with one (male, emphatically not me) idiot dancer quickly getting into the spirit of things.
The lead vocal initially shifted to Hermione Thomas for the gospel staple “Going Up Yonder” which augmented soaring four part harmonies with Gabriel’s keyboard and synth bass as the lead vocal was passed around the four singers.
One of the most distinctive elements of the 606 Gospel Singers’ shows is their capacity for “filling in” as Gabriel changes instruments or re-programmes his keyboards. This can take the form of Campbell’s homespun homilies, bantering with the crowd or pure evangelism and on other occasions bouts of spontaneous accapella choral singing. It’s all supremely entertaining and lot more edifying than watching the group’s resident muso fiddling with leads, buttons and switches.
Hermione Thomas’ fine alto voice took the lead on Wonder’s “Have A Talk With God”, this followed by a commendably restrained and tasteful “Amazing Grace” with Gabriel on acoustic guitar.
Sheer joyousness infused Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, the celebratory mood continuing into a rousing “I Go To The Rock”.
“I’ll Be Loving You Always” saw Emily back on lead vocals. I never did catch her surname and she isn’t mentioned among the personnel on the group’s website. Campbell, Thomas and Gabriel appear to be permanent members of the group with the band’s Facebook page describing Emily and Yolanda as “guests”.
At this point my notes start to get a little sketchy as it was audience participation time. Even at this relatively early hour of the day Campbell didn’t have too much trouble coaxing the crowd onto their feet to clap and sing along to Wonder classics “Higher Ground” and “Sir Duke” with a call and response section challenging us with some increasingly difficult vocal lines. It’s when you have to try it for yourself that you realise just how talented the people on the stage really are. The four singers then showed us how it should be done with a stunning accapella gospel number before Campbell brought the whole congregation back in for “Oh Happy Day” with guest Yolanda Antonio taking the lead.
I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this performance, including the obligatory audience participation bits. The singing of the four vocalists was superb and and they really made their chosen material come alive. And impressive as this was this was just a taster, the 606ers London shows often include a ten piece vocal choir and five piece band and almost by definition must be pretty awesome. London based readers can check this out for themselves when the group performs at the 606 this coming Sunday lunchtime (September 8th 2013).
ASAF SIRKIS TRIO
Drummer and composer Asaf Sirkis has been a popular previous visitor to BMJ. The London based Israeli is regarded as one of the UK’s best drummers and as such has become a prolific sideman as well as leading his own long running trio featuring fellow countryman Yaron Stavi (electric bass) and the Greek born guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos. This line up’s latest album “Shepherd’s Stories” is arguably their best to date with Sirkis’ writing reaching new levels of maturity.
I’ve seen the Sirkis/Stavi/Spiliotopoulos line up several times and know roughly what to expect from this combination of musicians. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that Sirkis had brought along two fresh faces for today’s performance with Stavi’s place taken by the exciting young six string bass sensation Kevin Glasgow and with the supremely versatile John Turville completing the trio on electric piano and synthesiser. I’ll concede that some audience members who might have been expecting the album line up may have been disappointed but for me this was an exciting opportunity to see Sirkis present his compositions in a substantially different context and in any case Turville makes a significant contribution as a guest on two pieces on the new album.
Inevitably most of today’s material was sourced from “Shepherd’s Stories” but Sirkis chose to open with “Chenai Dream” from the previous album “Letting Go”, another excellent release. Glasgow’s virtuoso but highly melodic bass playing was a feature here. Since first coming to attention as a member of saxophonist Tommy Smith’s “Karma” group Glasgow become an increasingly ubiquitous presence on the UK jazz scene, channelling his Jaco Pastorius and Steve Swallow influences into a style of his own. Glasgow is also an accomplished guitarist and has recorded with organist John Paul Gard (who appeared here yesterday) on that instrument. Turville also figured prominently on this opening number which was climaxed by a feature from master drummer Sirkis.
From the new album “Eyes Tell” adopted a gentler, more lyrical approach, a sign of Sirkis’ growing confidence as a writer. The tunes on “Shepherd’s Stories” often resemble folk melodies and represent Sirkis’ most memorable collection to date.
Spacey keyboards and bass plus the ethereal shimmer of Sirkis’ cymbals introduced “Meditation”, a melody and bass groove subsequently emerging. Turville doubled up on keyboards, his dramatic synthesiser soloing replacing Spiliotopoulos’ striking guitar lines on the recorded version.
“Shepherd’ Stories” itself was something of a showcase for Glasgow, the virtuoso young bassist producing some astonishing harmonies as he played “Stanley Jordan” style on the neck of his instrument. Glasgow’s left hand chordal work was also a constant feature throughout the set. Meanwhile the piece came once more to a dramatic conclusion with a feature from Sirkis.
Sirkis travelled right back in time for “Desert Vision”, a tune from the album “One Step Closer” recorded in Israel in 1996 before the drummer moved to the UK. It’s possibly the only Sirkis solo album I haven’t heard. The album line up included keyboardist Kobi Arad and electric bassist Gabi Meyer and the fact that the same instrumental configuration was playing today probably explained its inclusion. It certainly fitted in well with the “Shepherd’s Stories” material opening with a mirage of shimmering keyboards, lazily languid electric bass and subtly detailed drumming with subsequent solos coming from Turville and Glasgow.
Sirkis dedicated “Traveller” to Travelodge” (previously he’s dedicated it to Ryan Air) but behind the joky announcement was one of the drummer’s most lyrical tunes. The recorded version features the delightful wordless vocals of Sylwia Bialas but here the piece became a feature for Glasgow and Turville, both sight reading but both inspired in their solos.
The opening track from “Shepherd’s Stories” actually closed the show here. Sirkis revealed that “1801” with its complex time signatures is “difficult to play” but it’s also stirring and dramatic. Sirkis was fully involved throughout, effectively leading from the drums. Turville’s dazzling keyboard solo (he also guests on the recorded version) was followed by a final virtuoso drum barrage from Sirkis, a solo that amply demonstrated both his immense power and remarkable precision.
For me this well received set in the Club Room venue exceeded expectations and constituted yet another festival highlight.
First things first, the Heavy Quartet has never had four members. Formed in 1984 by saxophonist Rob Smith and drummer Jess Phillips the group has had a floating membership but the line up has usually comprised of eight or more members. The current HQ comprises of Smith (Phillips left some time back) together with long standing stalwarts Brian Yule and Nils Andersson (trumpets), Neil Pedder (keyboards) and Neil “Keyo” Langford (guitar) plus more recent additions Gareth Roberts (trombone & euphonium), Callum (bass) and Christian John (drums). Roberts has been a particularly significant addition to the band’s ranks, a major soloist on trombone and a significant composing presence who made a major contribution to the group’s most recent album, 2009’s “Hardware”.
A legend on the Cardiff scene The Heavies have reached out to a wider constituency through their numerous festival appearances. The band played for twenty five consecutive years at Brecon Jazz Festival winning many new fans (myself amongst them) in the process.
Although rooted in jazz the Heavies sound includes elements of rock, funk, reggae, ska and blues. They are not afraid to mix genres and over the years have established a signature sound based on riffs and grooves with jazz solos riding this powerful rhythmic undertow. It?s a sound variously described as “left field” or “iconoclastic” but despite the fact that the Heavies occupy a hinterland of their own somewhere between jazz and rock (plus all the other elements they throw in) there?s nothing “difficult” about their music. Indeed the band are huge crowd pleasers at festivals with their irreverent approach. Although they concentrate in the main on original material they are not averse to throwing the odd inspired cover into their repertoire. The band were playing Nirvana tunes such as “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” long before Cobain and his colleagues went global.
The bulk of today’s set was drawn from the “Hardware” album with the bulk of the material penned by either Smith or Roberts. Opener “My Jungle” emerged from scratchy beginnings to embrace a typically chunky and memorable Heavies riff with solos from Smith on soprano, Yule and Roberts.
Although they deploy rock rhythms and electronics there’s a good deal of colour and variety about the Heavies arrangements and the solos are very firmly rooted in the jazz tradition.
The first outside tune was Lester Bowie’s “Charlie M”, presumably a tribute to Charles Mingus who actually hated being called “Charlie”. Solos here came from Smith on tenor, Andersson on trumpet, Langford on guitar and most appropriately new boy Callum on double bass.
Roberts’ “Urban Trad” was a fascinating juxtaposition of hip hop rhythms, a Smith soprano solo and an an exaggeratedly “trad” closing section featuring the four horns carousing in unison.
Langford’s “Heugh” was a show case for his distinctive, rock orientated guitar which featured alongside Yule’s trumpet. The tight, riffy piece is climaxed by a band shout of “Heugh!”. Audience members who’d seen the band before were quick to join in.
“Round One” was drawn from the repertoire of America’s Youngblood Brass Band, a tune rooted in the marching band tradition with its military style drumming and unison horns. Solo interludes came from Smith on tenor and Roberts on trombone.
Smith’s “Japanese Reggae” is a long standing Heavies favourite introduced here by Langford’s guitar and featuring solos from Smith on tenor and Pedder on synthesiser.
As well as his membership of the Heavies Roberts is a band-leader in his own right and runs his own popular and successful quintet. His “Go Stop Go Man”, a showcase for his considerable trombone soloing ability, was originally written for the quintet before being brought across to the Heavies. To date the Roberts quintet have recorded two highly enjoyable albums, “Attack Of The Killer Penguins” (2006) and “Go Stop Go” with a third currently in the pipeline.
Smith’s “City Blues” has also been transferred into the HQ book, this time from the repertoire of Wonderbrass, the South Wales community band co-ordinated by Smith. For such a band the standard of musicianship is extraordinarily high and Wonderbrass have recorded a number of very credible EPs and albums. Like their close musical relatives the heavies they are also great festival favourites with a rich Brecon tradition. They were also much loved in Pontypool and Lichfield, two festivals that have fallen by the wayside in these troubled economic times.
Roberts’ “Bailey Dan y Bws” is the rousing opener to “Hardware” and proved a similarly rousing closer here with solos from Roberts, Andersson and the tenor toting Smith. A small but enthusiastic audience gave the group a great reception and they were coerced into playing “Wedding Day” as a kind of encore, Smith’s soprano solo infused with Middle Eastern elements that must have pleased a watching Gilad Atzmon.
I’ve seen the Heavies many times at the Brecon and Pontypool festivals and more recently at the Queens head in Monmouth. They always deliver and do so with humour and skill. Even after all these years they still look as if they’re enjoying themselves on stage and hopefully will continue to do so for some time yet. Now all we’re waiting for is the band’s next album.
DAMON BROWN QUARTET
Trumpeter Damon Brown’s previous visit to BMJ in January 2012 saw him partnering singer Tammy Weis. It was therefore good to see him in a context where his soloing skills could be more fully appreciated. He’s a musician I’ve seen a few times over the years, I recall gigs in Pontypool and Cheltenham, and his performances have included both jazz and bebop standards and original material. Today in the Club Room with a house band the emphasis was on the former with Brown and his colleagues stretching out at length on just half a dozen well chosen numbers.
Originally from Manchester Brown now divides his time between London and Seoul where is making inroads on the burgeoning South Korean jazz scene. Tall and shaven headed he cuts an imposing figure on the bandstand and was tonight actually playing a long cornet, the instrument he deploys on his 2009 album “This Time The Dream’s On Me” which sees Brown’s quartet of Robin Aspland (piano), Mark Hodgson (double bass) and Sebastian De Krom (drums) augmented by guest tenor saxophonist Steve Grossman. After the gig Damon was selling copies of this unpretentious but very enjoyable album for a fiver, what’s not to like?
Tonight Brown played with a house band featuring regulars Phill Redfox O’Sullivan (drums) and Jason Ball (guitar) with Ashley John Long taking over on double bass. Brown’s solo cornet intro led the way into trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s “Blue Soul” with Brown, Ball and Long each contributing lengthy solos and with Brown trading choruses with O’Sullivan’s drums.
Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe” saw Brown encountering some microphone problems but these were eventually surmounted with the quality of the soloing from Brown and Long more than outweighing any technical difficulties. Brown is an extraordinarily fluent soloist with a flawless technique and he was in inspired form throughout tonight’s performance. Long is a hugely imaginative bass soloist who also provides great tone and groove. He’s still based in south Wales but were he to make the move to London there’s no doubt that he would soon become better known.
The ballad “I’m Confessing That I Love You”, written by Victor Schwerzinger, graces the album described above. Here Brown’s masterful ballad playing was enhanced by the delicate tracery of Ball’s guitar and the rich purr of Long’s bass undertow. The latter’s solo was also supremely melodic, the perfect complement to Brown’s expressive cornet work.
Brown has a fondness for the tunes of other trumpeters and Clifford Brown’s bop classic “Joyspring” began with a virtuoso solo cornet intro before going on to feature inspired dialogue between Brown and Long, these two musicians seeming to strike up an instant rapport.
Lee Morgan’s “Ceora” (from the trumpeter’s “Cornbread” album) introduced a Latin/bossa element with Ball taking the first solo followed by Brown. I noted that one of the Heavy Quartet’s trumpeters, Brian Yule, had by now positioned himself in the front row and appeared to be sussing Brown’s every move, a mark of the respect in which Brown is held by his fellow musicians. On the other hand he may just have been checking out ex HQ member Ashley John Long.
The closing number “Janine” was a frantic bop tear up with bravura soloing from Brown, Ball and Long plus the obligatory trading of fours with the drums. Packed with virtuoso playing this high energy romp was rapturously received by the Abergavenny crowd. Brown’s playing had been brilliant but he had been admirably supported by an excellent house band with Long in particularly impressive form. However the final words of praise should go to O’Sullivan and Ball, house band ever presents who played with skill, taste and verve and proved to be the (relatively) unsung heroes of the festival.
GILAD ATZMON TRIO
Despite the rapidly plunging autumnal temperatures Mike Skilton decided to stage the festival’s closing set by Gilad Atzmon on the outside bandstand, I think he wanted to get his money’s worth out of the lights that had been installed. It was a bit parky out there and on reflection the event might have been better off being staged in the intimate atmosphere of the club room where Atzmon had generated such a buzz the night before as part of Sarah Gillespie’s trio. However in the end with an inspired Atzmon blowing hot the temperature hardly seemed to matter as one of BMJ’s favourite artists ended the festival on a high note.
Originally Atzmon had been scheduled to appear with his Power Cats trio, an organ combo featuring Asaf Sirkis on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond. In the event Stanley was unable to appear and Atzmon replaced him with double bassist Tim Thornton which meant that we saw a rather different show to the one advertised. Not that this seemed to bother anybody, the music was significantly different to that of the Orient House Ensemble who had visited BMJ back in January. Instead of the focus being placed on original material this was instead a homage to Atzmon’s all time saxophone heroes Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and featured the rare sight of Atzmon on tenor. It was all reminiscent of Atzmon’s earliest days in the UK, incredibly this year represents the twentieth anniversary of his coming to Britain, a milestone that will be celebrated in November with a special concert performance at the 2013 London Jazz Festival.
In those early days Atzmon used to perform in the trio format and recorded a now unavailable album, “Take It Or Leave It” in the company of bassist Val Manix and drummer Sam Anstice Brown, it’s the only Atzmon album I’ve never heard. Atzmon says that he still loves playing in this configuration and in Sirkis and Thornton he had the perfect partners. Sirkis’ relentless polyrhythmic flow was the perfect fuel for Atzmon’s flights of fancy on a variety of reeds instruments while Thornton’s muscular but agile and always receptive bass playing was the perfect anchor. In the main this was a high energy performance that mixed virtuoso musicianship with Atzmon’s trademark off the wall humour. As usual the combination was irresistible, even as the mercury continued to fall.
Atzmon began on alto with a segue of the standards “I Can’t Get Started” and “Alone Together” delighting in the ironies and significances of the titles. A switch to clarinet for “Nancy With The Laughing Face”, with Atzmon using his clarinet to replicate the merriment suggested by this title, peels of notes imitating gales of laughter.
He began on alto for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” but following a typically fluent and forceful Thonton bass solo he also picked up his tenor to give us a burst of the Roland Kirk “two horns” thing, something familiar to rock audiences courtesy of Van Der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson and Atzmon’s Blockheads predecessor Davey Payne. Following this crowd pleasing piece of showmanship he put down the tenor and entered into a series of thrilling alto and drum exchanges with the brilliant Sirkis. “He’s called Asaf ‘cos he plays his ass off!” declared an excited Atzmon.
Excursions on tenor have been something of a rarity for Atzmon over the years but recently he seems to have acquired a fascination for the music of John Coltrane that rivals his ongoing Charlie Parker obsession. His unique take on “Once I Had A Secret Love” featured a second sax/drum stand off and threw in a quote from “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Also played on the larger horn “Like Someone In Love” featured a brilliant Thornton solo and an equally jaw dropping solo tenor sax cadenza.
Atzmon had already given us his impressions of Parker, Kirk and Coltrane and as Sirkis set up a fast boogaloo beat the saxophonist now became David Sanborn. The title of this item was never given but it was notable for a stunning drum feature from Sirkis, his percussive pyrotechnics accompanied by the honks and squawks of Atzmon’s alto. A Thornton bass solo provided the bridge into a call and response section with Atzmon encouraging the audience to sing increasingly complicated bebop scat vocal lines back to him. “They couldn’t afford Courtney Pine” joked Atzmon, “so I’m doing this for fifty quid”.
The performance ended with a version of “Wonderful World”, a song that has had several interpretations by Atzmon over the years.
This was a great way to end the first wall2wall Festival. Atzmon is an awesome technician and a superb if sometimes provocative showman. This freewheeling set performed with two equally brilliant exponents of their respective instruments mixed technical excellence with a spirit of fun and adventure with Atzmon clearly enjoying the freedom provided by the trio format. Incredible feats of musicianship were accompanied by laugh out loud moments of verbal and musical humour with Atzmon slipping all sorts of outlandish and outrageous quotes into his solos. The guy’s a force of nature, his performances Kerouac style “streams of consciousness”. The audience loved it, nobody was noticing the cold by the end.
This was an excellent first festival from Black Mountain Jazz. As I said in my Saturday coverage every act on a pleasingly diverse programme delivered and the whole event was a convincing artistic success. Logistically everything was very well organised with all events running to time and the sound was largely excellent throughout. Well done to Mike Skilton and his team for their hard work and for turning an ambitious dream into a reality. The feedback from both audience members and performers has been almost universally positive .
Most pleasing of all is the news from Mike that despite relatively modest attendances the festival broke even financially and that it is hoped to hold a similar event next year.
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