Matt Wilson: Have Drums, Will Travel

Lawrence Peryer By

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The best way I know how to celebrate something is with music or with a group of musicians. This record was a way of saying thanks to some people: a big thank-you note, in a way, a sonic thank-you note.
Drummer Matt Wilson must surely be in the running for the title of hardest-working man in jazz. Wilson is a composer, bandleader, producer and teacher. As a leader, his projects include the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts, Christmas Tree-O and the Carl Sandburg Project. He has been in bands with luminaries such as Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Ted Nash and many, many others. As for legends, he's played with Herbie Hancock, Dewey Redman, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Elvis Costello, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, John Zorn, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Hank Jones. With appearances on over 250 albums as a leader, co-leader or sideman, this list barely scratches the surface.

While all of these credits illustrate what life can be like for a working jazz musician in the 21st Century, a striking aspect of Wilson's resume is his ability to move between scenes. He is comfortable (and, more importantly, welcome) with cats like Wynton Marsalis, often gracing the stage for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and more often than not he can be found downtown in a small club with the likes of Myra Melford, Joan Stiles or Noah Preminger. Regardless of the venue or situation, Wilson brings his knowledge, sensitivity and enthusiasm to the proceedings.

All About Jazz: Where did your light-hearted nature come from?

Matt Wilson: I didn't really know what I was doing for the longest time, in terms of a career in music, so the more fun I had, the better. Well, I knew what I was doing, but I grew up playing music in an area where there was not a lot of jazz. We had to take it where we could get it. With buddies of mine, I went to a lot of concerts and stuff like that. With one buddy in high school, he was 16 and I was 15, we drove 115 miles north one time and saw Clark Terry in Quad Cities. Fifty miles south of Macomb we saw Dizzy Gillespie's band and then drove about 140 miles to Champaign or whatever to see Oscar Peterson solo. That was in one week in 1980.

AAJ: Road trip!

MW: Yeah, it was a road trip. That was our thing. We would go and see the Count Basie Band and stuff like that. But for me, the light-hearted thing—it comes from when I saw people like Dizzy, Clark Terry, Louie Bellson. These guys were honestly really nice guys and seemed to be having so much fun doing this, I just thought that was part of it. If the first jazz that I saw was very serious people in presentation or demeanor, maybe I would have been different. I have been really very fortunate from the get-go to have people along the way that have really been encouraging—older people that were in my home town, just as much as [music] veterans on the road. When you get this kind of guidance, it's really great, and you can't take that for granted.

I remember one time playing a nursing-home gig—they called them "Music Performance Trust Fund Gigs." They probably still do it; I hope they do. They had some funds, and you would sign up to play, and then they would pay cats to play a nursing home or other public-service type of gig. We were playing, this one time, and this lady, Marge Fanny was her name ... We were going to play "Sweet Georgia Brown." I was just going to go nuts and play this solo. She said, "Well you don't have to play this song; we improvise on the form of the song, and so do you." You know, she told me this.

So right then with that came, from the very words that she gave me back then in this nursing home, something I use all the time. I tell students, "You have to put yourselves in situations, and you have to be open all the time, because you never know when you can learn something or somebody enlightens you in some sort of way. You never know when you might meet that person who can totally change you."

I always try to do that. I have some facility. I play the drums pretty well, I guess, but I was always playing for the music's sake and the community feeling of playing music. That is how I always got a buzz up. That, to me, is what seemed fun. The bands that I saw and the people I saw doing this work—they seemed to really like each other, and they were having a lot of fun and I was, like, "Well that is kind of a nice family that they have along with them, their family of these musicians." And I was fascinated by that, and I still am.

You know, I still love the travel—even if I am not traveling, just being around the cats, you know. Christmas Tree-O just did some gigs, and we drove. It was Jeff Lederer, Paul Sikivie and me. Just the drive, just the discussion that you can get into on drives or on flights! I remember I did this tour with Joe Lovano and John Scofield's band—great tour. We were out for five weeks, and that's a lot of time to talk, a lot of time to visit. And I just remember sitting on planes and talking with Joe and John about things—just about music, regional scenes and our families. I really cherish that time a lot.

So I guess that is all part of it. I like the community. Community is a big word for me. I like the community not only of musicians but people like yourself that are writing and radio people and presenters. I like to go and hang out, and I like seeing people and catching up. In this day and age we have all the gadgets and everything, but it is still fun to go hang out and talk.

AAJ: In listening to your recordings as a leader, as in Arts & Crafts, that notion comes through and probably cannot be separated from the music. It comes through in the space or in the room that the other musicians seems to have.

MW: I always know that I am fortunate to have these people as friends, and they happen to be really great musicians. They are very special. For example, with Dennis Irwin, who passed away and who was the original bassist in Arts & Crafts, if we could just spend five more minutes talking with Dennis—we wouldn't have to play with him again but just to have five more minutes of saying something—it would be really, really great. I think as you get older, you just have to realize these things too—a little bit about the vulnerability of things and how special it is to get to do this. I think sometimes we take it for granted. My buddy Andrew D'Angelo, who played with the Quartet for a long time, we were just laughing the other day about the time that we were hanging sheetrock at the first house that my wife and I bought—and we were hanging it, and he's really great at this stuff, and I was holding this thing up over my head, and I am shaking and he's drilling to put the thing up, and we looked at each other—and he said, "Let's never complain when we are out on the road again, ever, because this is a drag."

We'll complain about: "Oh man, this hotel," or "Man, this food," but we get a chance to do this, and I never take that part of it for granted. That's why I like going and playing in different places. And sometimes there are a lot of people there and sometimes there's not. It's just the way it happens, but that has always been this way in this music; it's not like all places are always packed. It feels good to give some people an opportunity, an hour or so, to kind of leave what is going on and be taken up.

That is why being inclusive is such an important part of the band leading. I learned that from people. You have those people there because you know who to surround yourself with. Dewey Redman was a big mentor of mine, and I played with him for 12 years. He said, "You know, when you want to lead a band you pick people that you love to play with, and you pick songs, and you let them play." I know how to surround myself with good people, and I treat them well. Being a good band leader comes from learning what I have learned as a side-person, and I have learned a lot from being a band leader that makes me a better sideman. There is a sense of pride for me when someone in one of my bands can turn around and say to me, "Wow, that was so much fun." That, to me, is the ultimate compliment.

AAJ: Do you ever find that there are instances where you are not giving enough direction or a musician will yearn for more of it?

MW: Yeah, and you learn to sense that after a while. My philosophy is that you want to be able to, at any time, lead, follow or just get out of the way. Sometimes you've got to take charge. Somebody has got to, but sometimes you can't— you don't want to be the leader all the time, so it's give-and-take with all this. There are times you have to make decisions. I've made some good band decisions, I think, sometimes on the bandstand; sometimes I haven't, about tune choices or whatever. If people know that you are there for them, I think it makes a big difference. I have had some good role models for this, though. People have been very generous with me. Dewey said, "People sound their best when they play with me." I have written about this and talked about it a lot. At first I was taken aback, but that is a really great gift—to bring out the best in people and let them shine. And that goes beyond the bandstand. You know, it goes beyond everything.

We are in pretty naked territory when we are up there together, so you have a relationship with people, especially in improvised settings—naked in a good way, but naked you really are. If you are really vulnerable then that is when real magic happens. The word "careless," this word about "care": you want to care about things, but then there is "careful" and there is "careless" and there is "carefree;" I mean, there are all these ways in which "care" can be in these words. I don't want to be careful necessarily, though careless is not great in music, either. So there is a responsibility, and I think what is great about everybody I play with is that they have such good presence. They are so comfortable with themselves that they welcome new challenges- -and it is not necessarily challenges of really hard music that they have to figure out. It is more like a challenge of: how am I going to allow them, help them, or how are they going to allow themselves to offer and then receive. They are all great receivers; also, they are great allowers. When I have been around somebody like Joe Lovano or John Scofield or Dewey, these guys just have a different energy about them that I really admire and I really want to be around and be a part of.

AAJ: Their non-performing selves as well?

MW: Yeah, their non-performing selves as well—just a lot of stature, a lot of poise, a lot of character. I like characters. Gary Versace, Terell Stafford are all characters; they have personalities, you know? Just as Dewey and Andrew Hill were. These guys have a vibe. To me, the group effort is really what makes it the best experience. I feel more rewarded when it is about the group thing—that give and take.

From left: Martin Wind, Matt Wilson

AAJ: You have some ease going between being a leader and a sideman. You know when to let go. You can let go of the responsibilities of being a leader and enjoy being a sideman.

MW: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And then sometimes we'll go out with some younger folks every once in a while, and you might say, "Hey, I mean, I don't like to give too much advice, but you might want to try this." I have learned to do that over the years and not say too much, but say, "Hey, maybe if we tried this."

That leads to something that I find fascinating about recording. I have learned to try to not to think, "OK, this record is going to be this concept and it is going to be this," because when you get there it can really change. These are just versions of the songs. Some of them we have done differently if we have played them before. Some of them we have never done before, so it was kind of fun. I think that letting go—I think I have gotten better at that. There was still this point even a few years ago where, live, I felt we had to do the things on the records, and I still try to do that, but I also try to bring in some new things. As a band leader, sometimes you wonder if guys are tired of playing some of the songs, but usually they are not because they get a chance to play the same material for a stretch of time; that is a real gift. So we don't really worry about that so much. I will say to somebody when I am the side-person, "Don't worry about that. I'll play it every night!" I don't give a damn anymore if something is new or whatever. It is the people that are doing it that feel good; that's what is important to me.

AAJ: So having fun, being present—those are the requirements?

MW: The only requirement is presence; just be there. Be in it for the 60 minutes that we play, and keep the vibe together. As we get older, the talks that we have about these kinds of things are more about that, and not as much [about] abilities, because there are plenty of people with abilities, but it is how willing they are to give up what they think something is supposed to be. I want people to keep their ideals, but at the same time, I like the adaptability or just welcoming it or accepting it—accepting this is what this is and just saying, "OK, this is tonight." I think that this is the greatest joy about improvising: every night, everything is part of it—not just the songs, but the venue, the people in the room, what you find backstage, the joke that somebody says right before, or the things we have going on the road, or the friends that you know that are at the gig that have seen you before. Or there could be negatives: you lost something, or you left the big box of CDs at the hotel in Chicago and never found them, like I did once—those kinds of things. You are tired or you are whatever, but you are together, so you can get through it. I like that part of it. I think those challenges are really what gives it the lift.

AAJ: You move between communities in a way that we don't see very often. For example, you could be doing something at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which might be seen as more of a mainstream, traditional scene, but at the same time you play with John Zorn or John Medeski, guys known as more avant-garde. There isn't a lot of bridging those worlds the way you do, and that's too bad that there isn't more of that. It is understandable—people have their scenes, their perspectives, their schools—but how much of that is intentional on your part? Are you just following your muse?

MW: That's a great question. I was fortunate to do a lot of interesting things in 2011, too many to list, but I played a trio improvisation with Thurston Moore and Zorn the other night. The energy is as gratifying and the vibes from each of those guys are the same as anything else I do. I always go by the people. I don't look at the labels of anybody.

There have been a lot of people that have been very helpful to me with that. I try to bring different people into projects, that I want to use because I dig their musicianship and their vibe so much. So it is nice to have that community and the gap be bridged. It's the music and the musicians and especially the personalities of the people. That, to me, is what is really intriguing. I love John Zorn, for example. He's this great cat, and I can't believe I am up there sometimes. Buster Williams—I love playing with Buster. And Cecil McBee. Cecil, I got a phone call one day last fall from— two phone calls in a row. I was in Montana. I came back and there were two calls in a row, one from McBee and one from Buster. Cecil and Buster, they were asking me about gigs. I was, like, "Man, this is great." These cats—I love these guys, and I love playing with them. They are great orchestrators and, man, I have always felt welcomed around them. Charlie Haden—he has always made me feel incredibly welcome. Andrew Hill made me feel welcome, and Lee Konitz has made me feel welcome. So I am really reverent to these guys. I have a lot of respect for what they do.

I was talking about this tour we did for five weeks in the fall of 2008—Joe Lovano with John Scofield and Matt Penman and myself. Five weeks— now that's a long time to be on the road. There was not one second of tension. Everybody took care of business and everybody was part of the community, so we had fun, and then that translates to the music. People knew that it was special beyond just the vibe.

AAJ: That's a long time.

MW: It was a long time—especially with this day and age, that's a long time for anybody to tour. I mean, that was, like, unprecedented for Joe and Johnny; well, Johnny is out a lot. But it's a lot—and I learned so much from that. I learned about energy and lift, and so on. The other night, I'm sitting downstairs at the Stone while other people improvise. I'm just sitting there. I have never met Thurston Moore, I'm a big Sonic Youth fan, and I am thinking, "Wow, I am sitting here talking with Thurston Moore!" We were talking about Albert Ayler! I love the stories, and that's another thing is, you get around these cool folks; you get to hear their stories.

AAJ: Whom did you come up with as contemporaries?

MW: Andy D'Angelo, John Carlson, Curtis Hasselbring. I don't see some of those guys as consistently as I would like. David Berkman. Dave Douglas lived in the same neighborhood. Jeff Lederer has been part of my life for a long time. Joel Frahm I met in the first couple of months I was here, and we still play a lot. Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison, Michael Blake, Ted Nash, Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Printup.

And then there were people that I always wanted to play with that were that generation above, so people like Mark Dresser and Ray Anderson and Marty Ehrlich. When I was living in Boston, these guys were a part of the new thing, and now they are friends. Adam Nussbaum, and then people on the West Coast like John Clayton and Jeff Clayton who I admired for a long time. You come up through admiring these people, and then you are a part of their world, but, man, to have Buster Williams be like what you consider one of your friends—it's like, "Wow." I remember one day we were traveling, and we were looking at coats or something together, and I am, like, "This is cool, man." Or one time I was on stage with Charlie Haden, a Trio concert with Charlie and Dewey Redman in Montreal, and I actually laid out for a second just to listen to those guys, and I actually reached down and grabbed my legs to say, "I am really here." I am not being melodramatic about it but it was, "Wow, I am really here. This is pretty cool."

AAJ: Dewey bridges a lot of worlds.

MW: Well, see, there again, I came from this tree of people that did a lot of that.

AAJ: So it was never not possible?

MW: That's right, and growing up, I had to play a lot of different kinds of music just to get to play a lot. If I said, "I am only going to play jazz," well there wasn't going to be too much playing in Galesburg and Knoxville, and then maybe not even in Wichita. So luckily I learned, and I played with my blues bands, played in country bands, I played in rockabilly bands.

AAJ: Tell me a little bit about your involvement with WeeBop, how that started and why that is important to you.

MW: Well, the WeeBop project—I mean, I have done a lot of education stuff for Jazz at Lincoln Center. It started with doing the Jazz in the Schools programs. I have done two tours of those where we went around New York City public schools. One was a program called "Jazz: Music That Happens Now, In the Moment," and we did them all over the place. It was great. Then a couple of years ago, my good friend Erika Floreska—who was, at the time, the Director of Education at Jazz Lincoln Center—asked me to do a young people's concert—it would have been in June of 2010, I believe—called "What is Free Jazz," and we did that. It was really great. That was with the quartet, and Marshall Allen from Sun Ra Band was our guest. This guy is 86 years old—now he's 87, I think; he might even be 88. Man, what an energy, what a vibe. He is so welcoming, so beautiful, so great with the kids, so great with us, so great with everybody, and so we did that one. I am doing one in February—with Arts & Crafts, called "What is Improvisation?"—that we are currently putting together, which I think will be a blockbuster. I think it is going to be really great. For WeeBop, they wanted to do a record to surround the classes, though I had no involvement with the classes, per se. They wanted me to be involved with the musical directing of the record and production. I went to the meetings, and we had ideas. We threw them around and then—with Samantha Samuels, who is one of the producers, and Jeff Lederer—we put together a really great record. I think it is really happening.

I call it a family record because I think very small kids will dig it and older kids will dig it and adults will, too. It is kind of like watching Shrek or when we see a really great Sesame Street episode. I still am fascinated by those shows because they draw everybody in; everybody gets something. I think that is what we have accomplished with this record.

AAJ: You see a lot with kids and music where you don't have to tell kids anything about the music. You just expose them to it, and it clicks for them— something there touches and resonates.

Trio M, from left: Mark Dresser, Myra Melford, Matt Wilson

MW: I think honesty is a big part of that, and also maybe they are more open listeners than anybody else. They will be cool with this project, so I am very excited about it. I have always been into playing for all ages, and that is something that I love about jazz. And it is often not talked about, but I don't think there is as diverse an age of crowd for any other music as there is at jazz shows. Where else can you find a high-school kid sitting next to somebody in their 70s, and they both like this music and they can talk about it during the break.

AAJ: Jazz is very similar to baseball, where you can go to a baseball game at any level of play—you can go to Yankee Stadium or you could go to a little league game or you could to a college game—and go as deep as you want. You can be a stat-head, you can know everything, or you can just dig sitting there and kind of taking in the atmosphere.

MW: That is really true. Dennis Irwin said the same exact thing as you just said. He said, "Well, it's like a baseball game. You could be sitting next to somebody that doesn't know anything that is going on, or the person next to him is going, 'Well, he is going to pitch it. He's going to throw a slider.' But there is still enjoyment whether somebody is really expert about it or not." So sometimes I think we want to educate people, but sometimes I think that gets them weirded out, too. As respectful as I am with the traditions and all this, and I am a firm believer in all that, we have to also make people feel that jazz is happening right now and not in the old days. There is such debate going on right now about all that in jazz.

AAJ: That's part of it, too, though. It's just like when people are talking about baseball: "The mound used to be higher," and "The ball used to be wound differently," et cetera. That's how you know it's alive and healthy—when there can be an orthodoxy and there can be heretics and there can be schools of thought. It's a sign of vibrancy, even when the debate itself is annoying.

MW: Oh, I think so. If there is anything about the older days, it was that the jazz players were more part of the community. They weren't just these people that came to town and: "Oh, their concert's here and then they are gone." It was: "They are staying for four nights; Let's have the [Jazz] Messengers over for dinner." Things like that.

Buster Williams and I talked about that, once. I think it's a really great topic of study about the bands that played those circuits and the houses they stayed in, and they left messages for each other, and they did all that stuff. They just knew that they were going out and playing these places. It's not going to be that way again, nor should it be, but maybe if we can start to create a little bit of this atmosphere of having more of a circuit in more towns, with shorter distances between... I really feel like what gets people into this music is when they get a chance to know some musicians. You can read about them and you can put stuff up on the internet or you can put YouTube clips and you can do this and that, but the minute they sit down and talk to cat, that creates a different kind of atmosphere. That is why I try to be as personable as possible out there—to try to help generate the feeling that we are not aliens or separate.

Again, its community. When we have had the opportunities to be in a certain town for a few days, doing workshops and a couple of concerts with any one of these bands, it's always fun because you get to see real people. One time, Arts & Crafts was playing in Alaska. It was Gary, Terrell, Dennis and I. We took a little plane from Juneau to this fishing village called Una, Alaska and we played a fishing cannery. It was great. It was turned into a little community center, and they had an electric piano. It's a town of about 1,000 people. There were 120 people at the concert. They hung on every note and just loved having anybody come play for them; they loved every second of it. We stayed; we did a thing at the school. When we were heading out of town, people were waving, and it was great. At one point, we were leaving the hotel, and the band director left me his truck to drive—I could drive it to the little airport because it was "three on the tree" and I knew how to drive it. So we were putting all the stuff in the back, and we see this truck drive by and then turn around and come back and we are, like, "Uh-oh," and the guy rolls down his window. He has his dog in the back, and he goes, "Fellas, that's the greatest thing that has happened to this town in 20 years," and it was great. They wouldn't know a Cannonball Adderley record from our ensemble, but they loved, loved this. They loved just having people come to them and play.

We didn't raise a fit like: "We can't play here. We said 7-foot grand piano; we have to have a 7-foot grand." You know what? There was no 7-foot grand to be had. It was an electric piano, and we dealt with it. We knew what the situation was, again improvising with the situation.

That was a really special one. I said to the folks, "We had a great time here. The only thing that would really cap this off is to see a bear." So we are driving back to town; they are driving us back on this gravel road. All of a sudden, all these cars are stopped, and we get out of the car to see what is happening, and someone says, "Hey, Mr. Wilson, your wish is granted," and there was this little yearling Grizzly that had come down this hill. We weren't that close, but close enough. I said, "Wow, that thing is big!" and they said, "Oh, that's nothing!" The police or the Sherriff came, shot a gun up in the air to scare it, and it went up a hill. The next day we took off. We were, like, "Well, this was a really deep experience."

So again, the experiences. We go out there and do it for the music. Benny Green told me that with Ray Brown, one day it was first class, the next it was in the van. One day you are at the Mandarin Oriental, one day you are at the whatever it is, but you are going out. We are going out and doing this. It is nice to have high standards and all that, but "No expectations, no disappointments."

AAJ: Let's dig into Arts & Crafts a little more. What can you tell us about the title of your new record, An Attitude for Gratitude (Palmetto, 2012)? What does that mean to you? It seems a little serious.

MW: It's a little serious. My wife and I have been married 25 years this July. She was tired, and something was going on. I could tell back in October of 2010, before I was going on a trip. There were blood tests for her, and you have to have a transfusion when certain cells are low, so she called me the next day and said, "They are transferring me to the North Shore Hospital." I flew home, and she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was in the hospital for a month, got into remission, came home, and then we were here home for the holidays. She had to go back in for another maintenance visit, and then she was able to find a bone-marrow match. So she had a bone-marrow transplant March 15th, and she is doing very well. She is actually going to go back to teach at the end of the month. So part of it was, man, you find out how hip people really are. Sometimes it's unfortunate that you have to have these situations to find out how great human beings really are, but they are really great, and they will really go to bat for you. I mean, our families, our music community, our community out in Long Island—you know, everybody.

We go to this little, hip Presbyterian Church, and one day the Minister said something about the "attitude for gratitude," or something like that. I think we have to, in general, be more grateful for things. When you have to go through something like that, and I don't want to sound melodramatic and cliché, but you really do take a different kind of philosophy about things a little bit. It helps you in a lot of ways, and it also scares you in other ways. You know, you find out how vulnerable things really are. So on one end you are energized and the other, I have to honestly admit, sometimes you are, like, "What's around the corner for any of us?" I don't want to try to be preachy; I am not on a movement, though I think it is a nice, positive thing. I don't think there is anything wrong with people trying to feel that way.

AAJ: How did the loss of Dennis Irwin impact the record?

MW: That was hard. I haven't really talked about it yet, but he was there from the get-go, and we only subbed out maybe a couple of times, where Martin played. At the same time that we knew about Dennis' situation was when Andrew D'Angelo, the alto player in the Quartet, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. So I had two different guys in two different bands of mine facing these pretty perilous situations, and it was really a hard thing. One day, I went to take Dennis to a treatment. I bring him back to his place, and then I went back to see Andrew, without telling either one of them.

AAJ: That's a lot of life.

MW: It's a lot of life. I have triplet sons, and when they were born back in 2001, I had this woe, it would be, like, "Oh, my career is over." Actually, that brought incredible luck, in that there are all these tests along the way. Some of them were pretty big. I just learned to try my best and learn to accept things. It is not always easy as that. It is not always easy to accept, so lightheartedness sometimes is there a lot of times, and sometimes it is kind of like woe. My kids are great. My kids are incredible. I am not just bragging. They are incredible, and they have been strong through the whole thing. They know the music community, too, and see how important it is to me, and they know how important it is to them. They have met, and they know, all the guys.

My daughter loves Charlie Haden, for example. It is kind of cool to know that they have had these kinds of experiences. Not to say it is any better or any worse than any other kid's situation, but it is a nice situation for them to be in. What is a great thing about New York for me is that—as opposed to what many people may think, especially outside of the music community—is that they probably think, "Oh it's really cutthroat." Actually, I think it is probably one of the most amiable scenes in the world.

We are all in the same boat, in a way. We are all playing jazz and support each other— even just little notes from people just saying "We're here" was really inspiring, and people checking in and everything like that and being really flexible with my schedule last year. I didn't want to bring it to light too much. But you know what? I knew it was a cause for something. The best way I know how to celebrate something is with music or with a group of musicians. This record was a way of saying thanks to some people: a big thank-you note, in a way, a sonic thank-you note.

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