Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 5-6

Sligo Jazz Project 2018: Days 5-6
James Fleming By

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Linder threw chords into his bassline like jabs. Quick and hard, with a well defined tone. As if you could feel the knuckles’ impact.
—James Fleming
Sligo Jazz Project
Sligo, Ireland
July 28-29, 2018

Not even the boats on the water moved. It was a dark morning. Lit by grey sunlight that carried no heat on its rays. The mist and cold nipped at the skin but otherwise there was barely a twitch of movement. No vigour in the breeze at all. It was buried beneath the stillness. Covered in a blanket of sodden air.

At Sligo IT the music stirred from beneath the damp. Up and down its hallways the ensembles were preparing themselves for Sunday's performance. Readying their tunes and sharpening their edges. In a room off the college's main drag, Shannon Barnett was talking her ensemble through the form of "Iko Iko." The old and oft-recorded New Orleans R&B tune. One of those songs people are born knowing.

Barnett comes from Australia. But now by way of New York she's based in Cologne, Germany. Where she leads her own quartet and plays in the WDR Big Band. As well as being a punchy, singular soloist she has mastered the fine art of ensemble playing. An art she passed on to her students. Who learned her lessons well. So that she could "let the baby chickens out of the nest." And let them rehearse themselves while she left the room.

They measured up admirably. Rising to meet the challenge set by Barnett's confidence in them. When she returned she made the band stand in a circle, with each member facing the others. And set the beat for "Iko Iko" by walking in place. With their heads bobbing and their shoulders grooving to the rhythm. A rolling, carnival flow. As colourful as the lyric's Mardi Gras parade. As infectious as mass hysteria. The players made their way back to their instruments. The singers took hold of their shared microphone. And from the vocalists down to the snare drum's Bo Diddley beat it was a strong, sure performance. A testament to the connection between teacher and students.

In only a few days those ensembles had to build up a rapport and a chemistry many bands never achieve. They had to forge that bond without the aid of a world tour or writing sessions. And it was through the exquisite leadership of Barnett and the other instructors that that was made possible. Sligo Jazz Project was not just an education in musical notes. It was a lesson in how to trust and be trusted. If there's a lagging limb in a band's roster it will never take to the air. And no one in Barnett's ensemble wanted to be that dead weight. She brought out all the determination and reliability of her students. The qualities required to keep the ship airborne. Invoking the true spirit of learning as she did.

Education's goal is to lead out the already present traits of the student. And then to mould them into skills and abilities. Not to force a mould around someone. Not to form the future into neat and ordered queues. Even though each soloist gets but a chorus within that mould they are free to express themselves. They are given the chance to become who they want to be. SJP's tutors accomplished their mission to help those soloists along. To help them take what was already present and fashion it into their ideal sound. As Mike Waker would put it in his guitar masterclass: "You're changing what you already know." It's a process of self-reflection. Of the player constructing who they want to be out of who they are. And then mastering the musical tools that allow them to take that identity. The music does not make the player. The player makes the music. Forms it out of their practice and experience and ambition until they've made another limb for themselves. Something so entwined in their being, it seems as if it was always there. When it's actually a new aspect of a person. A freshly cut facet that's just now catching the light.

Barnett's ensemble worked their way through Carey and Fischer's "You've Changed." A smooth contrast to the stomp of "Iko Iko." Where before looseness and strength were required, precision and delicacy were needed on "You've Changed." In such a song there's nowhere to hide. There's no energy or rawness to mask any deficiencies. And if Barnett had been a lesser mentor the ensemble would have floundered in these more placid waters. It's hard to find footing without an upfront backbeat, easier to drown in the sound-waves. No matter how gentle they are.

Under Barnett's guidance however they made landfall at the far side of the tune. Having navigated the form they worked out in a team-huddle at the start. The masterclasses were calling then. And the musicians packed up their trade-tools and made their way down the halls. Headed for the last class of the week.

In his English accent Mike Walker told the class "it's what that gives you is the important thing. What that gives you, eventually." Highlighting that music is, in the end, about satisfaction. About getting a sense of achievement out of the instrument. He told the ardent students that "all the stuff is under your fingers." That those achievements rest on the guitar's fretboard. And all it takes to pluck them from the strings is dedication and thought. A frame of mind that feeds the practice just as the practice feeds that mindset. A loop that progresses even as it retraces its steps. Coming to life by inches.

"You'll be playing a lot of arpeggios," he said. "A lot of arpeggios." And he led the class across the first five frets' map. Moving up by tones through minor-seven chords. Never straying beyond that fifth fret. And the sound of a room full of guitars clashing against each other packed the air tight. The sound of the first steps towards achievement.

Walker broke guitar playing down to its most basic fundamentals. He played one note, just one, and guided the class through understanding that the notes can be mixed up. Building from the ground upwards. Making no presumptions. Never assuming that the class understood something. But leading them towards better understanding the things they may have taken for granted. "Be a bit more meditative about it," he instructed. To really take in the significance of each note and what they were trying to accomplish. Just as there is a relationship between musical notes there is a relationship between the player and the played, the instrumentalist and the instrument. Walker's class was an education in those relationships. In how to further them and improve them. He called it "taking in the notes."

Walker would pause and offer encouragement. Saying "That's it, well done," or "you with it?" Making sure that no one was left behind. As he was once left. Crushed and bleeding on the roadside after a hit and run that put him in a wheelchair for a couple of years. And he said that his right side, his picking hand side, was "smashed in." He had to "reconfigure" how he strummed and picked the guitar strings. Once he could mimic the John Mclaughlin-isms that helped birth jazz fusion. After the hit and run, he had to rewire his technique. Forge a new right hand style for himself. That was many years ago. And over the course of those years he built himself up. So that he could hold himself with total confidence in front of a room of hungry students.

There is no secret. There are no other ways around an instrument besides dedication and thought. But there are tools that make the journey easier. And Walker passed on a most invaluable tool when he told the class "you're changing what you already know." That the best way to walk the path to success is to put one chord or technique or note in front of the other, as it relates to what came before. To run a common thread through the tapestry. Until, eventually, you have achieved something that at first glance appears totally different to where you started. But in fact contains the same sand that started the pearl. That same hard, clumsy grit that becomes virtuosity.

One of the last things that Walker said to his students was "be kind to your brain." Cruelty never begets anything other than more cruelty. It is no way to shape a pearl. Determination and patience do what pressure and force cannot: they facilitate the growing process. "Be kind to your brain," he said. That and to change what you already know, those are the two steps that shorten the journey. Cut it down to a manageable distance.

He had to leave it there. As did the other tutors scattered around the college. The gear had to be packed up, the day had to move on. And so the masterclasses ended. The Hawk's Well Theatre would host one last lesson on its stage that night. Then it would be Sunday. And the students would have to perform the lessons they learned over SJP's six days: the walk onstage, the new techniques, the new lyrics and the fresh approaches to musicianship they had acquired. They would not be on their own. But they would be the ones under the stage-lights. Holding up under the rays.

Time had moved on but the day had not. It was as still and sodden and damp that afternoon as it was that morning. Outside cars were packed with instruments and amplifiers and people. People eager to feel the movement of the car going along the road with the windows down.

It was hot but there was no heat shimmer. It was heat that had been trapped beneath the low clouds so you felt only the weight of the wet air. Dotted around Sligo Town were gigs -Shannon Barnett's Quartet, Sligo Concert Band, Julian Siegel's "Free Trane." Pockets of life and enthusiasm scattered about the township's pubs and restaurants. Shaking the air with music.

The afternoon trudged on to evening and the final gig at the Hawk's Well. Familiar faces peppered the crowd of new ones and the sound of drink's orders played like a broken record. "SJP All Stars" was written on that night's ticket. Promising each and every one of the week's tutors onstage. Linley Hamilton walked out under the lights, pedalling t-shirts and thanking everyone one last time. Before he turned to let the projector roll. And the damp and the stillness was forgotten as the show began.

It began with a film.

Kris Manulak, of the video production team, edited the film down from the hours of footage captured over the week. The fleeting moments and the landmarks of SJP were all there in his nearly six-minute film. Soundtracked by the highlights of the concerts: Liane Carroll & Friends singing "Bye Bye Blackbird," a bass duet from Federico Malaman and Henrik Linder, The Olllam onstage. Shots of the classes played into clips of the shows. Spiced with the smiles of tutors and students alike. Their laughter as tuneful a song as any of the jazz standards played over the week.

Norman Pugh -"hospitality, transport, artist liaison" -closed the film. Reciting "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree." With his arms spread wide and a smile just as wide on his face he said "that'll do ya." And the film ended to applause and cheers. The crowd's recognition of all that went into Sligo Jazz Project 2018. From those who filled in the paperwork down to the singers and instrumentalists.

Linley Hamilton turned to face the crowd again and said "let's get this show on the road." So Scott Flannigan walked up to the Steinway and hit the airy, spacious opening chords of Miles Davis's "Solar." Ushering in Cathal Roche's alto solo. Beneath his confident, but delicate, playing, Dr. Steve Davis kept the time on the ride and hi-hats. Interjecting on the bass drum and snare. Mike Walker played chiming finger-picked chords. Alternating between using the flesh of his fingers and the harder attack of his nails while Roche's playing became firmer, more solid. Before Walker took a solo. A sprightly, happy lead played with the tone rolled back and up-strokes. A right-hand technique that kept the notes alive and spirited. He sang each of his notes. To keep his direction clear in his mind. Keep the path beneath his feet.

A path laid down by John Goldsby's double bass line. His left hand darted around the neck from headstock to body and back. At the higher notes he leaned into the instrument. As if he was trying to catch them between his teeth. While his right hand thumped the notes out of the strings. An impassioned attack on the tune backed up by Flannigan's supportive chords. Chords that got behind the tune and pushed it on. Further out into the stalls.

When Flannigan took his solo he opened with a dissonant left-hand chord that signalled the drums' drop-out. Before the band moved seamlessly into a shuffle beat. Carried atop Davis's brushed snare, Goldsby's bass line mellowed out. And gradually, beat by beat, they inched back up to the original tempo. Until they grabbed it confidently by the scruff and Flannigan broke out in speed runs. Traversing the ivories on deft fingertips.

Matthew Halpin opened his tenor solo leap-frogging from low to high. Bouncing off the bass notes' foundation to the euphoric upper reaches. He settled down into a vaguely Middle-Eastern groove. Rolling along on the tempo like the sand dunes of far flung deserts roll across the horizon. Before the tune ended on the shimmering of Davis's cymbal-bells. Cutting the horizon short. Fading out into its darkening twilight.

Linley Hamilton walked into the stage-lights as the band disappeared offstage. Leaving only Goldsby with his double bass to accompany Brian Byrne and Nicolas Viccaro, the new trio that Hamilton introduced. Byrne adjusted the seat as he sat down at the keys. The audience hushed-up. Awaiting the music. And then Byrne let fly with loud opening chords as Viccaro slapped his toms bare-handed. He flourished up the keyboard and the rhythm gave way to brushed snare drum and ride cymbal. Beneath Byrne's piano solo Goldsby slipped in subtle harmonics. Chiming rings beneath Byrne's soft left-hand chords.

The groove picked up and the piano spat rapid-fire notes into the crowd. Goldsby moved up the neck then back down and into his solo. He stayed in the higher register. Popping those high notes and pausing to build tension. He segued into Viccaro's two-bar drum interjection with a suspenseful chromatic run up the neck. And the band played for two bars before Viccaro drummed up another two-bar storm. There were menacing right-hand highs from Byrne. And gunfire from Viccaro's hi-hats. Before they returned to the beginning. And gave way to a hypnotic bass riff. Letting the stalls back down to earth gently.

On the top three strings of his guitar, Mike Walker led in Emilia Mårtensson's "Arm Ourselves" with a descending chordal line. She sang of arming ourselves "against ourselves" while Paul Booth's tenor breathed fire between the lyrics. Paul Clarvis's gentle snare groove propelled the song onwards. Electrified by Stephen Davis's conga-interjections. Fills and rolls that sparked the tune with zest. Atop this brew Mårtensson's vocals floated. Pushing, pulling and toying with dynamics. Their volume rose and fell like mountain peaks against the sunset. Turning on needle-points but never losing their footing. Mårtensson's mastery of her dynamic range meant that one phrase was intimate as a home's hearth and the next, by contrast, filled that hearth with fire. Her final, slightly dissonant, note was cut short by her enthusiastic "yeah!" And the applause chased its echoes until they both faded out. The note was finished. The applause was not.

Linley Hamilton stepped back onto the boards to introduce Meilana Gillard's trio: David Lyttle on drums, Henrik Linder on bass, and Malcolm Edmonstone on piano. They surfed through the intro of Joe Henderson's "Recorda Me" on a groove so gentle the clack of Gillard's sax-keys was audible. Lyttle smacked the cymbals and drums with the flat of his hand. While Linder's bass line popped and Gillard fired off trills on her tenor. Slowly and surely the groove intensified. Morphing into its solid and sexy evil twin. Like lightning, Gillard's flurries of notes spat light across the rhythm. A sort of fusion/spiritual combo. That climaxed with a passionate screech from her tenor. A slice across Edmonstone's high, ringing piano chords.

Linder threw chords into his bass line like jabs. Quick and hard, with a well defined tone. As if you could feel the knuckles' impact. For a split second he moved in unison with Edmonstone. Teaming up to double each other's punch. Behind the kit Lyttle smacked his drums once again. The sound of flesh on drum-skin a sharp thwack on the ears and a marked contrast to Edmonstone's open playing during his solo. Playing that cleared the air for his following nimble runs up and down the keyboard. As if his right hand was chasing his left's accompaniment. Serpentine lines that never quite caught their prey. But were always elusively, tantalisingly, thrillingly close behind. Snapping at the chords' heels.

Tension and release. Stretching the nerves to their cracking point. That push and pull is what makes the music. It is that suspense that lures in a listener. Drawing them further down the path. And it is the opened floodgates that they eventually walk through. Moving through the rush of sounds that surges around them. All the tutors/performers at SJP were master suspense-builders. Through juxtaposition and contrast, they built a narrative around even the wildest of their improvisations. Just as Edmonstone did that Saturday night sitting onstage at the Steinway. Contrasting his own style against his bandmates.' And one aspect of his style against another: the expansive chords meeting the keyboard runs head-on. The unstoppable crashing against the immovable.

As the menacing closing chords of Edmonstone's solo sounded through the theatre, Linder's playing stepped into the light. He stayed on the higher strings. Moving across complex, quick arpeggios as if they were an even plane. Rather than the note-wide stepping stones they were. He ascended up the neck to finish. Stretching the nerves tighter with each fret he crossed as Lyttle's cymbals glistened through the air. Bringing the rhythm back to where it started.

Gillard's sax returned as the volume quietened down. Until once again, the click-clack of the sax's keys sounded in time with the band. She ended with a trill. A dissonant, suspenseful flickering from one note to the next. Like a flame fighting the breeze. Pushing against the silence of the stalls.

With his trumpet shining in the lights Linley Hamilton led his quartet through "Without A Song." Goldsby, Davis, and Flannigan returned to hold fort as the rhythm section. The bass line edged its way into deeper, more complex waters. Starting simple and complicating itself as the tune went on. Building tension through movement. Hamilton's trumpet playing had a strong New Orleans-vibe to it. The raunchy, upfront sound of all night parties in the French Quarter. And with the piano's strings reflected on the black gloss of the lid's underside, Flannigan's bass-hand left room for the right's adventuring. Skating along on the bass line's terrain.

Goldsby would remain on the bass while Davis moved to the percussion section behind the kit. Shannon Barnett and Mike Walker stepped onto the stage. To back up Sara Colman through James Taylor's "Fire And Rain." Tucked away behind the piano Edmonstone sat hunched over the organ. Subtly colouring the tune with its shimmer as Colman sang from her core Taylor's lyric of death and addiction. The trombones played long, supportive notes that tied links between the chords. Building bridges from one chordal-island to the next. The soloists peopled the islands with ideas: Barnett's melancholy beginning, Walker's wide string-bends and emotive vibrato. Until they settled on the final chord-land. An ethereal, ghostly finish. As if the island was shrouded in mist.

With pride, Hamilton introduced Joseph Leighton, Connor and Michael Murray, and David Lyttle to the crowd. Leighton and the Murray brothers were former students who became SJP mentors. Passing on the knowledge that once sparked their musical fires. Seamlessly, the band moved through tricky pauses and pace-changes. Leighton's coaxed mellow, rounded high notes out of his guitar. Playing triads on the higher strings while Connor Murray moved from the highs of the bass's neck down to the low, rumbling notes at the headstock. Expertly emphasising the chord's accents during his solo. And firing short, stabs of runs between them. To keep the audience guessing. Keep them on their toes. The track ended with a cymbal-scrape from Lyttle and a trill from Leighton. An ominous coda.

With a glove on his fretting hand, Oleg Ponomarev -SJP's violin instructor -sent gypsy-jazz licks flying from his violin. While beneath his solo, Hamilton's trumpet and Ciaran Wilde's sax played sharp staccato notes. Following the chord progression of "Honeysuckle Rose." During the ensemble sections, Hamilton played snappy, bright trumpet licks. Filling the melody's gaps. They moved back to the head to finish. Returning to the main riff as Ponomarev shot an ear-catching lick into the stalls. Like a volley of arrows fired at the crowd. A fiery, inspired close to the first set.

In place of the first set's trios and quartets, the second opened with a big band. They moved through a "Nightfly"-esque opener to a Kieran Quinn -one of the piano instructors—original. Titled "Ellie's Garden" it married a traditional Irish melody with a jazz shuffle beat. Paul Clarvis stood in the shadows at the back, beating a rhythm out on the spoons. While Cathal Roche took a solo atop jolly piano accompaniment. Federico Malaman walked the bass to the solo's high, squealing finish. Ending the solo on an ecstatic peak.

Malaman palm-muted his bass strings beneath Quinn's piano solo as he moved from dramatic opening chords into brighter territory, fading out then to just drums and bass. And then dying away further to just drums and Clarvis's percussion. Punctuated by stealthy single notes on the piano. Interspersed around Clarvis's spoons solo.

The volume increased as they shifted to major chords and returned to the opening Irish melody. The saxophone and piano played in unison. Welding the two cultures -jazz and trad -together in the music. A melding seamless as surgery. With barely a scar left post-operation.

Hamilton introduced Flannigan and guitarist Mike Nielsen's freeform suite. A duet between piano and classical guitar. The humorous, disjointed intro moved into dissonant playing from both instrumentalists. With the piano butting heads with the nylon strings in a thrilling instrumental battle. It was a bizarre but brilliant piece. There was nothing stately about the way that grand piano and classical guitar were played. Nothing prim or proper about them. Instead the chords popped out from the fast runs up and down the neck/keyboard. An oddly beautiful clash of ingenious minds.

The suite closed with Nielsen zipping up the neck. Strumming with the mad but skilled hand of a flamenco player. A high in stark contrast with the other peak of the show: Liane Carroll's rendition of Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now." Where the original is a down-and-out, Townes Van Zandt-esque country song, Carroll transformed it into a stunning soul-jazz piano ballad. Sitting down at that steinway, she stood at the crossroads of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone. And blessed the Hawk's Well-crowd with a performance that easily matched any of the previous five days' shows. A performance that swung for and from the gut. And hit every bullseye it shot for.

One final tune: a reprise of Donald Fagen's "I.G.Y." With every tutor out onstage and every ass out of the seats the chorus rang through the air -"what a beautiful world this will be, what a glorious time to be free." And not a soul would have denied it. The week at SJP was not quite over yet. But more of it had passed than lay ahead. So the night was tinged with a sad nostalgia. One more door swung shut behind us on the way to Sunday's Big Bash. And the nerves were settling in. So the gathered drank and partied away their nervousness at the Riverside's jam that night. Making as much music as they could before the week slipped away.

Sunday, 29 July, 2018

The day bloomed bright and optimistic. With the sun shining on the Garavogue's water, dancing on its flow. SJP's participants and tutors stood at the riverside outside Anderson's Bar And Grill. Chatting and smoking. Grins cloaked nerves and the air seemed to vibrate with anxious energy. For the Big Bash was imminent.

In the doors and past the bar the low stage was set with a piano and amplifiers and a drum set. Cooking smells snaked their way through the air and more chat packed it tight. Friends and family moved among the week's participants. Brought down to support them and their learning. To watch the week bear its fruit.

As the students chatted and worried over their upcoming performances the first student-band took to the stage. Emilia Mårtensson's youth ensemble walked up to their microphones and took up their instruments, settling the afternoon's first expectant hush over the crowd. Before they ripped through the quiet blanket. Urging Eddie Lee to move with the sung mantra "dance Eddie dance!" The young drummer rolled across the toms during the solo, firing bolts of energy from the drum-stool. While John Goldsby's bass stepped across the beat in firm, confident strides. Nowhere else besides Sligo Jazz Project would kids as young as these get to perform onstage alongside internationally acclaimed musicians such as Mårtensson and Goldsby. And nowhere else would a student's confidence be built up with such compassion and care.

Linley Hamilton stepped onto the stage as the crowd still cheered on the first ensemble. Who moved out a side door to be photographed with Mårtensson. Hamilton peddled the last of the week's t-shirts to the audience. Who chatted over his announcements. Talking of the first band over their pints and coffees. With a wave of his arm Hamilton brought on Cathal Roche's youth ensemble, accompanied by Conor Murray on the double bass. Carried on an acoustic guitar's biting steel strings the ensemble moved through their brilliant intro. Guided by the bass and the saxophones' shared hypnotic riff. They band mirrored the confidence of the soloists. And laid a foundation solid enough to support the weight of that confidence.

They moved seamlessly into the next tune and that guitar soloed over the 3/4 time with all the brightness of the strings' steel. Before once again the applause and Hamilton's announcements replaced the music. And as his ensemble took their places David Lyttle took the microphone. To announce their tune "America," and the young poet Oscar. Who read his own poem atop the band's cinematic intro. Evoking the classic images of the USA: suspension bridges and Lady Liberty and skyscrapers. While the band put their new skills to the test. Live onstage with a doctor of jazz -David Lyttle -and Joseph Leighton. A former SJP student and now a mentor and world-class talent.

Ciaran Wilde's ensemble played with the confidence they were searching for in their rehearsals. Sparking the receptive audience into movement with their solid rendition of "Valerie." A tune-scape they could probably walk across backwards and blindfolded.

Mike Nielsen, the fifth ensemble's mentor and classical guitarist, led his band through two tunes. Closing on the infamous "Tequila." A rendition that came complete with audience participation to go with the band's violin and accordion. The timeless sound of a Benny Goodman drum-intro ushered in the song. One of those tunes people are born knowing. And the band moved through seamless shifts in rhythm as deftly as a pack of wildcats. Never tripping over any stray limbs. But moving as one.

The day moved smoothly from ensemble to ensemble. From Oleg Ponomarev's gypsy-jazz tunes through Shannon Barnett's "Iko Iko" and on to the rock-soul of Malcolm Edmonstone's ensemble's rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine Where She's Gone." Where the stratocaster-armed guitarist tore up the upper reaches of her fretboard. Evoking comparisons to Jeff Beck from one gentleman in the crowd. In between each band, Hamilton returned to the stage spouting praise and the price of t-shirts. And each band left their mark on the gathered. Stamping each audience-member with a unique memory of their performance.

And then, after a long day of five solid hours, the ensembles' performances were finished. The final photographs were taken. And the last of the congratulations were offered. There was to be one last evening jam session at the Riverside Hotel. One last chance for the students to make some memories. And that would be it for SJP 2018. After six fulfilling, inspired and inspiring day it would at last draw the curtains closed one final time. To await their opening next year on a cast of fresh and familiar faces.

At the Riverside there were renditions of Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and Coltrane's iconic "Naima." Where Cathal Roche stepped up to the plate midway through the tune. Blowing up a solo-storm. Goodbyes were said over the last orders. And promises were made to see each other next year. Until at last the crowd were shooed out of the barroom and into the night. To make their ways home.

Beneath the following morning's sunshine the dregs of Sligo Jazz Project could be seen hauling their bags around the town's streets. Catching buses and waiting on trains. Beyond the town lay Yeats country. Beyond that melancholy day lay next year's festival. As Lady Day once sang "I'll be seeing you, In all the old familiar places." And after SJP, Sligo was as familiar and friendly as a cherished childhood. Full of songs that come with happy memories attached and experiences never to be fully forgotten.

The buses pulled away and the trains moved down the tracks. Cars rolled down the roadways to far-flung home. Each roll of the wheels bringing the faithful one second closer to next year's SJP. An experience no one wants to miss.

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