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Pino Palladino: The Craftsman from Wales

Pino Palladino: The Craftsman from Wales

Courtesy Eric Fairchild

Ludovico Granvassu BY

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I like to think of myself as being a compositional player who has a capacity to fit into different genres. That's what has always interested me.
Refined craftsmanship is in small supply in today's music business, especially in the music business that fills sports arena or large music venues. Pino Palladino belongs to the small guild of refined craftsmen whose membership is reserved to musicians who do not seek the spotlight but pursue beauty through art, because that is what they were meant to do and how they were meant to do it, no ego, fully at the service of Her Majesty, The Music.

Considered from this vantage point, it is perhaps less surprising that a musician of his stature has taken more than four decades to release his first solo album. And that, when he finally decided to do it, ended up releasing it as a duo project (with producer, multi-instrumentalist and musical soul-mate Blake Mills), as if to shun the spotlight even off the spine of "his" album, Notes with Attachment.

Though Palladino is not necessarily considered a "jazz player," jazz has been part of his DNA all along. His capacity to be in the now, steeped in the tradition but forward-looking, open to all inputs, and in deep interplay with anyone he plays with, makes the Cardiff native as jazz as jazz gets. So it is fitting that Notes with Attachment is being released by one of the most iconic jazz imprints, Impulse!, which in its current incarnation is again keeping its ear firmly to the ground.

With its generic black font over a grey background, the image on Notes with Attachment looks as if it was meant for the session's reel tapes rather than the cover of the album. This almost-contrarian lack of dazzle may be striking at first. But, upon further reflection, one realizes that the cover does exactly what it is intended to do: give a sense of what's inside. It communicates that the intention behind the album was to document music that its author, the ultimate craftsman, felt good about. Making music so "right" that was worth committing to those reel tapes is the reward he was after; anything after that is icing on the cake. That cover—just like Pino Palladino's stage demeanor—does not say "look at me" but rather "listen to the music." A no-frills-all-substance attitude that may come from Palladino's upbringing in Wales, where he was born the son of a man from Italy's Wales, Molise.

Inevitably, this rare breed of craftsmen strike a chord, not only with the audience but also with colleagues that seek to inject purity and truth in their own projects. In the case of Pino Palladino, these colleagues have included anyone that matters across many genres, from the The Who to B.B. King, from D'Angelo to John Mayer, Herbie Hancock or Nine Inch Nails.

Serena Antinucci and I have spoken to the legendary bassist to learn more about his new album and his collaboration with Blake Mills, his early love of jazz, and those recording sessions with D'Angelo with the Soulquarians at Electric Lady Studios which were destined to influence so many jazz musicians of today.

All About Jazz: You're one of the most in-demand musicians in the world, across many music genres. How does your approach change when you play as leader/co-leader compared to albums in which you play as sideman or session man?

Pino Palladino: I think I approach every project in the same way. I have a very simple attitude to music. I just try and make the song sound as good as possible, whether it's mine or somebody else's. Trying to understand the genre I'm playing in has always been central to my musicality as I try to fit in while bringing my own style and personality, without perhaps disturbing the genre to a point where it starts to lose its identity.

AAJ: How did the collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and producer Blake Mills start?

PP: Blake was producing an album for John Legend, back in 2016 [Darkness and Light, Columbia Records]. He was looking for a rhythm section and he reached out to myself and Chris Dave, the drummer. As soon as I spoke to him on the phone, I felt that this project was going to be really fun. At the time, I lived in London and to participate in the recording sessions I flew over to Los Angeles, where, incidentally, I was considering moving to. I was aware of Blake's work, although we had never met or played together yet. From the first day in the studio, I enjoyed the way that he pushed me, throwing at me crazy ideas which I had fun exploring. We found out that we really got on and it was a natural progression from there.

AAJ: Notes with Attachments is a new album, but many of the ideas that are reflected in it had been brewing for years, sometimes decades. What is it that made them come together now?

PP: That is the result of combination of things. When I discussed Blake's invitation to play on the John Legend album with my manager, David Passick, we both agreed that it would be fun working with Blake. After Blake and I went to New York for some concerts to promote John Legend's album, David started talking to Blake's manager and it turned that that Blake was wondering whether I had ever done a solo record, indicating that he'd be interested in working with me on a solo album. My manager passed this on to me. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that it would be really cool to work with a great producer who has a deep understanding of recording techniques and is not scared to try new things. When I was in New York for some concerts with John Legend, I booked a recording studio on a day off. We did a recording session with Ben Kane, a protégée of Russ Elevado, a great engineer I had worked with during my collaboration with D'Angelo. I brought with me a hard drive on which I already had a track that I had worked on with Chris Dave from my home in London and invited Chris to come and add some percussion and Blake to play some guitar, and that became the first song that we collaborated on. We then played with more ideas, and again things went great.

During my career, I have played on so many amazing records, with so many different artists. As a bassist, my strength is not virtuosity. I like to think of myself as being rather a compositional player who has a capacity to fit into different genres. That's what has always interested me, but it is not an easy thing to translate onto a solo record. I had been carrying a lot of these songs inside of myself around for a long time. Up to Notes with Attachments, it never felt like I had a complete record of material that was different enough from what I had played before and what you can hear out there. But then I spoke to Blake about the possibility of a solo record, and we agreed totally on this vision. That's why it turned out to be really a good collaboration.

AAJ: How did the relationship with a historic label like Impulse! come about?

PP: Blake Mills has an imprint label through Verve [New Deal]. The original plan was for Notes with Attachments to come out on his label. Just before we finished the album the label reached out and asked me "how would you feel about this album coming out on New Deal/Impulse!?." To me that was a big honor. So, it was a no-brainer.

AAJ: On Notes with Attachments you play with many long time collaborators, and each one of them had a very active input in the artistic process, Larry Goldings, Sam Gendel, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Marcus Strickland, to name a few. You could have invited virtually any musician in the world since you've played with everyone that matters. How did you choose this line-up for the album?

PP: At the beginning of the project, as I mentioned, my main collaborator was Chris Dave. We started working together in D'Angelo's band [for the 2014 album Black Messiah]. We met in 2011, or in 2009, during the recording sessions for Adele's album 21. We really hit it off from the first time we met. From that point on, whenever we were working together, or wherever he was in London, or I was in LA, we would get together and just put some studio ideas down. So that's how quite a few of the songs started, just five minutes rhythm and chord sequences with me and Chris. I played that material to Blake, and then the goal became finding the right musicians to bring onboard, people who could contribute something unusual. Blake suggested saxophonist Sam Gendel, who is a unique artist. As soon as we gave Sam the music and I heard him play, I thought "that's the guy, that's the guy for this, right!" Marcus Strickland just came into the studio when Blake and I got together in the studio in New York. I asked him to bring his bass clarinet and come up with some ideas for one of the songs, and he came up with that amazing horn line which he double-tracked on "Ekuté." Jacques Schwarz-Bart and I have quite a history together. We go back to playing with D'Angelo in 1999, 2000, 2001. I have spent a lot of time with Jacques! For the new album, I gave him a demo of one of the songs and he wrote a gorgeous Ellingtonian kind of arrangement. I invited Larry Goldings because he is a brilliant musician. I just love Larry's musicality. He is so profound and his knowledge interests me. One thing I knew was that, no matter what, Larry would have to be part of this project.

AAJ: "Just Wrong" was released as the first single of the album. This is a very warm, hypnotic track, where the bass has a great freedom of movement, just like the other instruments and it seems that everyone is floating in a collective subconscious, a place where—despite the title—nothing is ever wrong. What is your relationship with error in music?

PP: That's a really good question. Sometimes when you are playing, a mistake may inadvertently open up a new possibility for a part of a song. This can happen both when playing your own music or someone else's music. For this reason, I am actually intrigued by mistakes, because they usually happen when you are in a place in your head when you actually don't know what you're doing but, nevertheless, something right happens in the universe. It is beyond your control. It transcends you. If you keep an open mind and you can listen to that "mistake" you can appreciate it for what it brings to the music, and you can make it work, and even find something more interesting than what you originally had meant to play. That's one of the reasons I get on so well with Blake Mills. We like to take chances, we keep exploring so that we can try and find something, just a little tiny thing that is inspiring to us. And this may very well come from a mistake!

AAJ: Why did you choose "Notes with Attachments" as the title for your album?

PP: It was my wife, Maz, who came up with the title. Blake, my wife and I were trading titles on the phone. I had a few title ideas. "Man from Molise," which became the title of one of the main songs on this album, was one of them. Blake immediately liked it and asked: "Where's Molise?." That's the Italian region where my father is from. Then my wife had a sudden epiphany and said: "how about 'Notes with Attachments'?." I think it's a perfect title for this record, because it can be read in more than one way. It reflects the fact I've carried this music with me for a long time. But it can also mean that the musical notes we play do have sentimental attachments, as they remind me of different times and places where I wrote the songs.

AAJ: Some of the tunes on the album are inspired by great artists that you admire (like D'Angelo, J Dilla, Fela Kuti, Roy Hargrove) and, as you go through these sources of inspirations, it seems that an increasing array of instruments enter the compositions: nylon string guitars, berimbau, marimba, percussion, viola... How did you handle all this expanding material during the recording session?

PP: Blake Mills has his own studio and an eclectic collection of old microphones, old keyboards, drums, etc. On top of that, in Los Angeles there is an African music store called Motherland Music where we went together, and we bought a whole bunch of stuff. Our creative process is quite experimental. When we get to a certain point in the track, we just try unusual things. When you think about it, only four of the eight tracks on the record feature a drum kit. That is a decision we took deliberately. We wanted to try and make things swing without drums, and add the percussions later, just to define them a little bit. This was a rather unusual approach for me. As a bassist, I am used to following the drums; the drummer leads the way... But, on this occasion, it was fun to actually start with the bass and then build the drums around it on some of the tunes.

AAJ: You have described a quite fascinating creative process which revolves around being in a studio. Did you conceive this experiment as a studio-only project, or have you also considered taking it on the road, once it will be possible to play live music again?

PP: When we were in the studio we didn't really work on the record thinking about how we would perform that music live. We were just making a project that we both wanted to be proud of and could possibly have interested people. It was only later, when I finally realized that I had a record, that I started thinking about playing this music live. So, if we hadn't been in these times that we're going through, I would definitely be planning a tour. I'll be very excited to do that as soon as possible.

AAJ: "Ekuté" and "Djurkel" are inspired by your passion for West African music. What are the roots of this passion?

PP: In the 1980s I discovered African music through the albums released by Real World, Peter Gabriel's label. I also remember a great album by Salif Keita entitled Soro [Mango Records], which got me really excited because it featured sounds which I didn't really listen to at the time. I played the shit out of that album! I had it in my car and I loved everything about it. That was my gateway to the music from that part of Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso... A few years later, around 1992 or 1993, I worked with a Swiss-German artist called Stephan Eicher. We did a whole heap of recordings together and his manager asked me to do a tour of Africa. These guys were very intrepid, it was a pretty hardcore tour. I had some of the scariest times and some of the best times in my life during that tour. I was exposed to a lot of music over there, even just seeing people playing in the street and clubs. In Bamako, we also played with artists like Ali Farka Toure, who came and brought his percussionist, his dancers, and some other musicians. Then I went to Senegal and I met Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the legendary percussion player. One of my best experiences was at the airport: a hustler was trying to sell me some cassettes. He was quite pushy and kept insisting. I finally gave in and he played me a cassette on his old Walkman. It was an album by Malian singer Oumou Sangaré. I was mesmerized. I bought three cassettes and brought them home. Once I was back home in London with my family, I was just thinking about the whole experience, and the music just totally got into my blood. I really enjoyed myself in Africa, but it wasn't until a few months after that adventure, that I realized how much I had internalized the music I had been exposed to. It's been there ever since.

AAJ: In the album there is also a tribute to Chris Dave and his drumming. How was your friendship born and what role did he play in the project?

PP: Chris Dave is one of those musicians that are so creative and will come up with something incredible and fresh at every opportunity. He never plays the same thing. He's been very encouraging from the get go. When we started working together, he would keep saying: "man, you need to do your own thing" and, in fact, we did a gig at Ronnie Scott's in London as "Pino Palladino and friends," with Chris, James Poyser and Tim Stewart as the core rhythm section along with a host of amazing guest artists. It was just fantastic. Chris is an inspiring friend and a challenging musician. He's an important part of this record.

AAJ: There is one track in particular that caught our attention: "Man from Molise." How did it unfold out of your inspiration from the great multi-instrumentalist and composer Hermeto Pascoal? And who is this "man from Molise"?

PP: I have always been very interested in Brazilian music. Their chord structures, harmonies, rhythms... They don't sound like anything else! Even in pop songs, they have incredibly sophisticated chord changes. That always appealed to me. I bought some Hermeto Pascoal albums when I was in Brazil in 1999, or 2000, playing with D'Angelo. I just went to a record store in Sao Paolo and I bought some twenty CDs. I didn't know what they were, one of them was Festa Dos Deuses, by Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo. That brought about a huge shift in my appreciation of the music from different parts of the world. His bassist is a guy called Itiberê Zwarg, an incredible composer and writer in his own right. I listened to quite a lot of that music and I love it.

"Man from Molise" started from that inspiration and a challenge to myself to try and write a song with a nice harmony, a nice structure in 7/4, 9/4, or 5/4. It just felt very natural to me. Initially "Man from Molise" was quite up-tempo. I had some great players in New York: Axel Tosca on piano, Jhair Sala and Jamey Haddad on percussions Joe Locke on vibes and marimba and Itai Kriss on Flute to play on my first version of that song, which maybe one day I'll put out. When I played that version to Blake, he loved it, but the first thing he said was "What if we slowed it down?." But then he brought it down to half the original speed! Imagine: you write a song; it's grooving and as has a certain feel to it. You can speed it up or slow it down a few beats and it's still going to work. But when you go half speed down, that's a whole other thing. It took me a while to get comfortable with that, but, ultimately, I went with the flow because I love the fact that Blake is always very experimental and daring. As time went on, we found ourselves being able to play it slow and still manage to keep the original feel.

At the beginning I had a different title for that the song, but as we kept working on it and as the song acquired an increasingly "European" vibe, my thoughts kept going back to my dad. Me, my son Rocco and my brothers always talk about Molise, the Italian region where by dad's hometown is. That has always been a big part of my life. "A man from Molise" sounded to me like an intriguing title. It is really about my dad, who left Campobasso, his hometown, when he was quite young to go to London and then he moved to Wales, where my mother is from. He worked in steelworks, just to earn some money to then move to Canada, but he met my mum in Cardiff and he never left. It's a nice story. So, the title came a long time after the song, but when you're dealing with art and music there's no rhyme or reason, things just eventually end up in the right place as a result of a series of events. Now when I think about "A Man from Molise" I visualize playing this music in Campobasso one day!

AAJ: Let's take this opportunity to go back in time, to your beginnings in music in Cardiff, Wales. How did you get hooked?

PP: When I was in my teens, my life was all about sport and music. Being Italian, I was brought up Catholic, obviously, and when I was about 14 years old, in secondary school, we had a priest, Father Delaney, who played acoustic guitar. We used to play guitar in church and that was a chance for me to leave school early, so that I could go and play the folk mass with the priest, and with my sister who played guitar too. My hometown, Cardiff, is a really interesting place. In some ways, it's similar to Liverpool in England. There are lots of different nationalities and immigrants. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I started going down to the docks where ships came in from different parts of the world, since Cardiff had a history in coal shipping. The docks could be a little dangerous at times, but that was also part of the excitement. There were a few clubs where you could listen to reggae music, funk, and soul. They became my source of inspiration. The DJs would play a lot of music from America, mostly funk and jazz. Before that, when I was playing guitar in a local rock band, Trapper, it was all about rock & roll, Little Richard, Chuck Berry... and '70s rock like Free, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Wishbone Ash....

AAJ: You discovered jazz rather young. How did you get into it? What captured your attention?

PP: It's quite interesting for me to be asked questions about jazz. It's the first time in my life probably. I don't think people perceive me as a jazz musician and I don't see myself as a jazz musician, but jazz has always been a huge part of my life. I just love it! After working in the steelworks, my father eventually started working in the restaurant trade. Eventually, he became a chef. I think his mother had run a restaurant in Campobasso, in the early 1930s and 1940s. On his nights off, he, my mother and their friends would go dancing. One of the dance clubs in Cardiff also featured a jazz trio and, by the time I was 14 or 15, my parents would take me and my sister there with them. While they were dancing we'd be sitting in a little booth with the jazz band playing right next to us. It was the Austin Davis trio, upright bass, acoustic piano played by Austin Davis, and drums. I just loved them. I couldn't believe the sound that band were making... That was the first time I heard jazz harmony. Of course, around this time I was hearing Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, but also Burt Bacharach or the soundtracks of John Barry, all musicians that in a way or another incorporated jazz elements.

AAJ: You may not see yourself as a jazz player but over the years you've played with jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock, Lionel Loueke, Steve Jordan, Manu Katche just to name a few. What aspects of today's jazz scene do you find inspiring?

PP: I am especially interested in what may be called "new jazz." You can look at how musicians like A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu or Roy Hargrove, who obviously was a bona fide jazz player before being involved in those kinds of projects, incorporated jazz into their own musicality, and that was extremely inspiring. Twenty years later, you can hear the type of impact they've had on artists like Robert Glasper or Derrick Hodge, that whole movement which is coming to jazz through the lens of D'Angelo and J Dilla. For obvious reasons, I feel very connected to that music. I love how in that brand of jazz musicians are freely improvising over a more rhythmic flow, with that weird kind of hip-hop swing. Take the creativity of J Dilla, or Jay Dee as we knew him before he became famous as J Dilla, and look at how he would cut up tiny little pieces off a record, maybe just your favorite two bars, and then make a whole track out of that fragment. I find that really intriguing. That sort of "loop approach" which people have now brought to jazz is also bringing the music to a lot of younger people. At first glance, it's music that doesn't seem to ask too much, because the listeners can just swing to it, can nod their head... but, when you dig deeper, there is some cerebral stuff going on. There's a lot of good stuff out there right now.

AAJ: You participated in D'Angelo's recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios with the Soulquarians. Those sessions have become legendary and their intersection of jazz and R&B or Funk proved influential on a lot of then-young jazz musicians, as you just mentioned. How did you get involved in those sessions?

PP: I met D'Angelo when I was doing a recording session with B.B. King. I felt already very honored to be working with B.B. I couldn't believe I was in the same room with him, and on top of that we had some amazing guests on that album, entitled Deuces Wild. Each song on the album had a different special guest, including The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Zucchero and, of course, D'Angelo. He came in and sang, and played the piano, on a song entitled "Ain't Nobody Home." I was aware of him as an artist and I was a fan of his work, but we had never met before. As soon as we started playing an instant connection was formed and he recognized that too. That same connection extended to all the other amazing musicians in the room, like Steve Jordan on drums, Hugh McCracken on guitar, Leon Pendarvis on organ and John Cleary on piano. It was an incredible session, produced by John Porter.

D'Angelo seemed interested in my bass playing. We started talking and he asked me whether I'd like to come down to Electric Lady Studios and work with him. The thing that I really liked was that at that point he was not aware of my previous work, like my fretless bass work from the eighties. For me that was very refreshing because he approached me as if I was a new guy, he took me for what I was playing without being influenced by the reputation that preceded me. He only had what was I playing that day to base his judgment on. That made it possible to develop a very honest relationship between us. Looking back, in some way that circumstance gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself as a bassist.

AAJ: What memories do you have from those days at Electric Lady Studios?

PP: I went down to the studios and, as soon as Questlove arrived, we started playing as a trio, D'Angelo, ?uestlove, and myself, along with engineer Russ Elevado at the controls. It became immediately apparent that we had something special going on. We were so connected it felt like we were one, also thanks to D'Angelo's way of composing, weaving bass lines, guitar lines and piano lines with his words. As far as I was concerned, I tried my best to fit into that, to be one third of that trio that was so nicely greased, everything perfectly oiled...

Those were very exciting times. I knew we were making something special. I was not sure how it would be received, but I felt we were doing something unique as I could not compare it with anything else I had worked on, or listened to. D'Angelo and ?uestlove obviously brought in elements of hip-hop, experimenting things like J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, who had been sampling jazz records in their projects, and making loops out of them which had a lopsided swing to them. That kind of became a thing, and as musicians we learned to play with that lopsided swing. That is before this thing that people now describe as "slugging the beat" or "playing behind."

Back-phrasing has been going on a long time in jazz music and in blues. There was nothing new to it. The difference in what we did was that we were back-phrasing as a rhythm section, as a unit, as an ensemble. The bass, the keyboards and the guitar would be sitting way back. The bass drum maybe be sitting back with us a little bit, the snare drum will be pushing and the high-hat will be on the beat. It's not a scientific thing. It's a feel thing, and it's definitely not a thing that will work on any session. Because it has to be an ensemble effort. Everyone has to be in on the secret, you know, the "secret sauce..."

AAJ: How did that approach come to be? Did it develop naturally out of your jamming with D'Angelo and ?uestlove?

PP: D had told me that he liked the bass to be behind the beat. So I played behind the beat, and then he said, "can you swing it a little further back," and I started playing again as he suggested, intentionally sitting back and looking for a pocket that felt good until at one point it just clicked. He opened up a door for me. I understood where that was coming from and I feel very lucky to have been introduced to that concept by its originator.

AAJ: How much did D'Angelo's jazz piano background, dating back to his teens in Virginia, have an influence on that approach?

PP: I would say that his background is more gospel than jazz, even though of course there are elements of jazz in gospel music. As far as that approach to the beat is concerned, I think that's just D'Angelo's. In the arts, every now and then, someone will appear who disrupts the "normal flow." D is one of those artists.

AAJ: When you take part in a recording session, like those at Electric Lady Studios, do you immediately get the sense that there's something unique to it, or is that something you need some distance and perspective from in order to assess?

PP: As I mentioned, in the case of those sessions with D'Angelo I knew immediately. Within moments of playing, I knew that there was something special going on. While working on John Mayer's Continuum record along with Steve Jordan and John as the core rhythm section , I knew we were making a great record.When I worked on Adele's 21 I also realized we had something special when we first heard the songs as a collective in the studio, together with Adele and Rick Rubin. We all understood that that was a very special record in terms of songwriting and Adele's contributions as a vocalist, the mood was special. You get a feeling sometimes when you hear a song, like when I got asked to play on Harry Styles' "Watermelon Sugar." As soon as you get something like that, you know... It's so well structured and put together that you feel lucky to get to play on it. All I have to do is not ruin it and find some cool things to play on it.

AAJ: Have you been involved in, or listened to, new projects that seem to take off from where D'Angelo left and take it forward?

PP: It hasn't really happened. On occasion when I'm doing a session I may feel that the music has been informed by some of my work with D'Angelo. For instance, when I worked with Jill Scott the producers were hip to that whole movement, and therefore it was easy to fit that style into that project. As I mentioned, a lot of musicians grew up listening to D'Angelo's music. It became a part of their music education.

AAJ: Let's get back to your early years. How did you fall in love with the bass. Was there a specific bassist that was responsible for that?

PP: I can go back a long way to when I was in school, at the time when I was playing the Spanish guitar in church, the priest took us to a concert in Cardiff, by a singer called Ralph McTell who had a good following at the time and wrote a song called "The Streets of London," which was quite a big song back then, with beautiful lyrics. He was playing acoustic guitar in this little theater, and he had a guy playing upright bass. I didn't know it at the time, but this guy was Danny Thompson, the great British upright bassist who played with many musicians, including John Martyn. You know, when you're young you don't really identify what instrument is making what sounds... well, Danny must probably be the first bassist I heard which made me realize how cool that low sound was. So, Danny Thompson was a huge influence on me, because his approach to upright bass involved a lot of sliding and harmonics and he would generate so many different timbres from the instrument. He was not a pure jazz player, however. The next bass epiphany for me came listening to Motown records. I remember in particular a school trip, when I was 14 or 15. We went to a skating rink where they had a huge PA blasting some Motown music. It was super-loud and so I could really hear and appreciate the sound of the bass of James Jamerson, the legendary Motown session player, without really knowing what it was. But I understood even more how much I loved that low sound!

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