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Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities
Victor L. Schermer By

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"Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde Jazz" are catch phrases often associated with musical pioneers such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor but more broadly refer to music that goes outside of the mainstream of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure. When that happens, opinions and emotions abound. Reactions vary from disgust to excitement and enthusiasm, and it is rare to find a balanced view on the subject. The question arises, why does the same music so strongly attract and repel? To seek answers to this and related questions about music that presses the limits of the expectable, All About Jazz initiated a conversation with Steve Swell, a highly respected, accomplished, and articulate musician who is immersed in these genres but has a strong background in mainstream music.

Swell is a trombonist, composer, and arranger of exceptional resilience, intensity, and technique, whose work captures the imagination of his listeners. Since he is adept in all genres, he was a natural choice for this interview. Swell's previous All About Jazz interview (May 31, 2010 by Gordon Marshall) covered a wide range of subjects, some of which are recapped here, but the current conversation had the specific purpose of exploring jazz that pushes the limits, disconcerting some listeners and generating enthusiasm in others.

AAJ: Free jazz and avant-garde jazz sometimes are not understood by listeners, and we hope to focus here on their difficulty "hearing" what others consider the future of jazz and ways in which they can learn to appreciate the value of music that presses the outer limits.

SS: That's a compliment to your understanding and sensitivity to the problem. In truth, half the history of jazz now has included the free jazz and avant-garde, and has developed even further from its radical stage in the 1960s. So it's important that we have a writer like you to help people have more appreciation and access to it. Some critics even now say they don't understand Ornette Coleman. I think it's important to stay open. I also must say at the outset, that I am not entirely comfortable with labels, especially labels where art and music are concerned, but for the sake of an intelligent discussion I will use the definitions ascribed to the music we are talking about here.

Steve Swell and His Musical Development

AAJ: Let's go to some questions about you, and then we'll come back to this subject that we're going to focus upon. First of all let's do the "Desert Island" question for a warmup. Which music would you take to that desert island?

SS: My interests are constantly changing, so it would depend a lot on what day you asked me that! Currently, I'm reading a biography of the avant-garde composer and violinist, Leroy Jenkins, and I'm listening to some of his earliest recordings which were done with Anthony Braxton on saxophone and Leo Smith on trumpet. So I would choose a piece I like that he wrote entitled "Life Simple," and a recording that trio made with drummerSteve McCall in Paris called "Composition #1" which was written by Braxton.

Soon, I plan to do a Bela Bartok-influenced project, so I'm listening to his "Microcosmos" and his String Quartets 4, 5, and 6. "Microcosmos" consists of 153 piano etudes that are used as technical studies, but they're also amazing music. So I'd probably take those with me to the desert island!

AAJ: OK, but wouldn't you also want to listen to some of the straight-ahead jazz?

SS: Of course! I keep a file of music I love and study in my iTunes folder on my laptop. I've got some Eddie Bert trombone stuff there that I love. Of course, Roswell Rudd. And Grachan Moncur and George Lewis.

AAJ: Those are all trombonists, and I'm surprised you didn't mention J.J. Johnson in that list. And what about other instruments?

SS: I grew up listening to all of J.J.'s recordings. And I love Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) as well as the early stuff he did with Charlie Parker. I'm an omnivore in the respect that I listen to anything and everything. I love Jack Teagarden. I have a video of him singing and playing "Old Rocking Chair's Got Me" that is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

AAJ: So you're open to the tradition, even though you're reaching for the outer limits.

SS: Absolutely. My father was listening to big bands and turned me on to all that stuff early on.

AAJ: Am I right that you grew up in New Jersey?

SS: Yes, I was born in Newark, but we moved to Union, New Jersey where I went from kindergarten through high school.

AAJ: What were your early exposures to music?

SS: My father played those big band records. I also listened a lot to WRVR, a big radio station in New York at the time. The disc jockey Ed Beach had a radio show featuring Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and even, at the time, "way out" players like Archie Shepp. And he would play their discographies in chronological order. So you would get the whole history of one artist within a two or four hour period. That's how I acquired my basic jazz history during those years.

AAJ: Were you already playing trombone or another instrument?

SS: I started trombone when I was ten years old. I started heavily listening to jazz when I was around fourteen or fifteen.

AAJ: A propos of what will be our main topic, in a previous interview you said that you were attracted to avant-garde jazz very early in your life, which was somewhat surprising to me, since it takes many advanced musicians a long time to get it.

SS: Well, I was totally in love with listening to Jack Teagarden, like his great version of "St. James Infirmary." I loved the sound, his tone, his technique. But when I first heard Roswell Rudd on the Ed Beach show, on "Wherever June Bugs Go?" from Archie Shepp's Live in San Francisco (Impulse, 1966), other synapses clicked and other neurons got fired, and everything brightened up in my mind! I thought, this is beyond anything I could possibly imagine! The new thing clicked for me immediately. I saw that as a way to do something original. It really fired my imagination.

Why People Passionately Love or Hate Free and Avant-Garde Jazz

AAJ: Your immediate liking for newer forms of jazz leads me to the question of the day: Why do some people dig free and avant-garde jazz, while others of equal musical awareness are turned off? Why are there these extremes? For example, I'll tell you a well-documented story, and I'd like your reaction to it. When Ornette Coleman came from Texas to California to get into the modern jazz scene, he asked Dexter Gordon if he could sit in on a set at a local club in Los Angeles. Dexter welcomed him on stage, but after he heard Ornette play, he told him to leave and never come back! Ornette walked out, naturally hurt and dejected. But Dexter's bassist, Charlie Haden had the totally opposite reaction from Dexter. He thought Ornette was incredible, followed him home, and they jammed all night at Ornette's apartment! Of course, Haden became Ornette's main bassist for many years after that. My point is that here are two outstanding musicians in the same band, and one of them is repulsed while the other is completely entranced with the same music.

SS: That's interesting, I wonder how old Haden was at the time?

AAJ: It was the late 1950s, and Haden was about twenty years old. Sadly, he just passed away this month.

SS: I wonder how old Dexter Gordon was.

AAJ: He was in his mid-thirties, so perhaps he already found his groove by that time.

SS: That could partially explain the difference. Haden was young and still searching.

AAJ: Yes, but it repeatedly happens at many avant-garde and free jazz concerts that a certain segment of the audience gets turned off to the point of leaving the auditorium. This happened a few years ago when Ornette played in Philadelphia. Many walked out, while others at the concert loved Ornette's playing. The same thing happened when John Coltrane turned to avant- garde music. I'm just trying to bring out the reasons for the intense opposite reactions that some otherwise open and experienced listeners have to the same music. Do you think it's wired-in to the brain, or a matter of repeated exposure, education, personality, or something else?

SS: I think if you're a musician, and you're learning a certain way of playing, and you work all the scales in a very traditional, mainstream way, you're going to have trouble appreciating music that goes outside that tradition. Ornette Coleman was finding all those nooks and crannies of sound in his instrument that no one played before. That's what made it so revolutionary.

But we can go back before Ornette. The clarinetistPee Wee Russell and others before him played strangely and oddly in certain ways. Music as a whole goes way beyond what we usually hear these days. The diatonic scale [the twelve equally spaced notes of the piano, etc.—Eds.] is only a couple of thousand years old. Other countries have always played other notes and sounds. In India and Africa, there are quarter tones and half tones. So Ornette was bringing back something that was always present in other times and musical cultures. But if you're educated to play and listen diatonically in tune, with a standard rhythm, and so on, when someone claims something different, it seems to violate everything you've been dedicating your life to. The same would be true of listeners who are immersed in mainstream music.

AAJ: Once you've developed your vocabulary, your musical language, everything else might seem like a foreign language that you don't understand.

SS: That's exactly what happens. If you have your vocabulary and your mind set, you might not be ready to hear and appreciate something really different from what's familiar or what you've been working so hard on to accomplish. Then it actually becomes threatening to what your sense of what music is.

AAJ: And most listeners in America are brought up on the diatonic scale. There are some exceptions in country music, jazz, and blues, like slurred notes, flattened "blue notes," and so on. But mostly it's the standard scales and notes that we're hearing constantly.

SS: All the pop music is pretty much that way. It's even less flexible than mainstream jazz. It's the simplest common denominator of standard bass lines, chord progressions, and rhythms repeated over and over again. That's all we hear on the "top 40." I have a theory that if the DJs played Ornette Coleman all the time, he'd become a pop star! I really believe that avant-garde and free jazz could be sold and marketed to much larger audiences! Repeated listening, as they do with top 40 stuff, is the key.

AAJ: So let me throw an unfair question at you. How would you define "music"?

SS: You're right—that isn't fair! [Laughter]

AAJ: But what we're really getting at in this discussion is what people consider music as opposed to noise or speech, or whatever.

SS: Yes, it's actually a very good question. I happen to have a very wide-open palette, which is partly the result of my early exposure to both mainstream jazz and also people like Ornette Coleman and Roswell Rudd, and I didn't find it that far a leap to make. Last night I was reading how Charles Mingus was into the classical composer Bela Bartok. And I recall reading that J.J. Johnson was heavily into Hindemith.

AAJ: J.J. was also into Bartok and Stravinsky quite a bit.

SS: So I'm not alone among jazz musicians in being open to many modes and definitions of music, including some far out composers like John Cage and Olivier Messiaen. I happen to live in the middle of the city—New York—and I hear street sounds around me all the time. I can hear it as a disturbance, or I can listen to it simply as the sound of my world, which is just a step away from calling it music. Near the end of John Cage's life, they had live concerts in the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden which he would attend. They would do pieces of his, so the taxi horns and all the street noises became part of the musical experience, which was his stated intention. For me sound is sound. Maybe I'm way too open to it, but I believe it's all part of music. If I'm out on the street, and I hear a garbage can bang, I hear it as a percussive accent, and it fits into the rhythm of my coming and going.

AAJ: So what you're saying is that in some way everything is music, depending on how we tune into things.

SS: Exactly.

AAJ: Are you familiar with pianist/composer Uri Caine's work at all? He uses all kinds of sounds and spoken words in his compositions and recordings.

SS: I know Uri very well. He's great.

AAJ: So you can define music as the diatonic scale, but you could also expand the definition well beyond that to all sounds that affect you in certain meaningful ways.

SS: Yes, absolutely. And it really is not anything new. Like what we are calling free jazz, many kinds of music in western culture has been changing and developing for a long time now. Using so many different harmonics and sounds, some that aren't even made from traditional western instruments. Harry Partch was one of many composers who invented his own instruments to play his compositions. So getting back to Ornette and free and avant-garde jazz, you could either reject it or you could give yourself to it in a very real way. If it does not click for you naturally, you should try to give it a chance, a number of concentrated, no judgment listenings, which I think is much more difficult than if it spoke to you right off as a listener. But repeated listenings is really the way in if you really want to try to "get" music that does not speak to you.

Currents and Influences in Swell's Recent Playing and Composing

AAJ: You mentioned some of the classical composers, and I wanted to ask you to what extent you are influenced by modern classical composers, such as those we mentioned earlier, but also composers like Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Steve Reich, and others. Do they influence your playing, or do you basically utilize an open jazz framework?

SS: These classical composers definitely influence my improvising. For instance, I'm trying to develop a harmonic sense different from Roswell Rudd or even the English trombonist Paul Rutherford. You can hear the modern classical influence in a lot of the European jazz players, and their improvising is very free. So I do add that to my improvising vocabulary. I'm always developing my harmonic sense and experimenting with large intervals. I also think about the sound of the trombone. I always refer to the reed instruments, like when you listen to Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman, they can get those "nook and cranny" sounds. I think you can do that with brass instruments, but it's more challenging. I take all that in as information moving towards new ways of playing the trombone.

AAJ: Do you use serial composition and twelve-tone rows?

SS: I don't deliberately try to use twelve-tones. I'm more looking to what I can get out of my instrument, like flutter-tonguing or some other technique, rather than using a twelve-tone scale, or a diminished scale. I feel that there's something emotional missing from adhering to a strict, fixed system, but that doesn't mean it can't be part of what I include in my improvising or composing.

AAJ: It's important for you to try to express feelings in your music.

SS: Absolutely! That's always the goal.

AAJ: In my opinion, your technique on the trombone is exceptional, pressing the limit of what's possible on that instrument. How did you acquire the ability to play with such resilience?

SS: Thank you for the compliment. But I really don't want to rely on technique alone. I'm trying to find other areas. But to answer your question, it's just a matter of practice. I still practice one and a half to two hours a day five days a week or more. I'm trying large intervals, wider intervals, and other patterns. Also, it's just experience and listening and experimenting. I try to play with as many people as possible whose work I find interesting as well.

AAJ: So you stretch yourself by playing with many diverse groups.

SS: Absolutely. Like, I recently had a gig at the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street [Chelsea section of Manhattan—Eds.] It's not really a hotel, it's a building they resurrected and now have various events and entertainment, such as a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in an unusual setting. So there's this big room and bar, and there's a band of young musicians doing music from the 1930s! After that, they bring on so- called avant new music. So I came in there with Will Connell and Reggie Nicholson, and when they heard us, most people left! But we kept playing, and it gave me a chance to really stretch out and try different things. I had a good time! We spent a lot of time trading fours and eights, which was phenomenal. So, it's all about just trying new things.

Sorting Out the Spectrum of Free and Avant-Garde Jazz

AAJ: " The new thing" was the watchword of the free and avant-garde jazz that came into being in the 1950s and '60s. Names you mentioned, like Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, the later John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and others come to mind in that respect. I'm wondering if there's a useful way we could sort out and classify the different forms within these general categories.

SS: These guys were the trailblazers. They all had different musical backgrounds. Cecil was a trained classical pianist. Roswell Rudd was a Dixieland player. And you hear Eric Dolphy, and you ask, where on earth did he come from? All of a sudden, he's playing stuff that's so ahead of his time, that you have to ask, how did that happen? His intervals and harmonics were just out there! I love his approach. Then he worked with Mingus, so that influenced him. So it's hard to know where he got his musical ideas from. Jazz has moved and evolved so far and so fast, that categorizing it becomes very difficult.

I tend to look at jazz in terms of individuals and groups of individuals rather than grouping them together in a broad generic sense. For example, Leroy Jenkins [violinist, violist, and composer at various times associated with Anthony Braxton, Anderw Cyrille, Cecil Taylor, and others.—Eds.]. There were a number of free jazz players before him, but Leroy added something else from his classical and folk music backgrounds, and he added harmonics and chord changes that were off-centered. There were so many people who did that each in their own way that I tend to look at it as each having his own individual sound world. If I were forced to break it down into categories, I would say there is what could be called free jazz/avant-garde. Then there's the European classical-derived approach. And there are those, like Anthony Braxton, who combine both those trends. So you can't really categorize players like him.

I think that the use of categories might help someone who is new to all this music. I was working with a student classical ensemble at a school in Brooklyn. I was talking about a release I'm on with Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, and Roscoe Mitchell is the featured artist on it. And one of the students said, "Oh, you mean Roscoe Mitchell the composer?" He didn't even know that Roscoe Mitchell played the saxophone. He knew Mitchell only as a composer. So we need ways for people to see the bigger picture, and some concepts and categories are useful for that purpose. But Mitchell is a good example of someone who is at home with diverse skills and approaches. And I feel drawn to that approach myself, as are many others. I can go in whatever direction I'm drawn to at a particular time. Like I wrote a clarinet piece; soon I'm going to do a string composition with voice. I believe it's really wide open for musicians today, and they should be aware of what's going on, and research a lot of what people are doing and feel free to follow their interests.

AAJ: A propos of your own work, you made two recent albums, Gumter Hampel—Cavana Lee Hempel—Steve Swell (Birth Records, 2014) and Evolving Strategies: Variable Intensity Sound Orchestra (Not Two, 2014). Perhaps you could tell us about these albums and how they fit in to our discussion.

SS: Both are representative of my idea about mixing various improvising approaches: there's some mainstream elements, free jazz, some composed sections that inspire improvisations which are sound and texture-oriented without a fixed beat. If it's successful, the energy will come across even if there's no rhythmic element to it.

AAJ: Let's say someone who is a novice listens to these albums and says, "What the h— is this?" The familiar sounds aren't there. What would you like to tell them so they could get the hang of what you are doing?

SS: If you have a concept of what jazz is supposed to be, and you listen to something that doesn't quite fit your idea, of course you're going to be confused or disappointed. I'd say that if you're challenged by something, look at it as a good lesson in life. In your life you're going to meet many people who are very different from you and whose personality or background you can't relate to. Are you going to ignore them? Hopefully not, and you might open up to a new experience. It's the same with music. If it's new, expose yourself to it and get familiar with it. Repeated listening can open your ear to new music. I really believe that's the way to get into it.

Let me give you a personal example. I'm very open to all kinds of music, but one person whose music I had a very hard time with is Derek Bailey [English avant-garde guitarist—Eds.] I had no idea what he was playing. But I listened to him over and over again, and what I discovered was a difference between him and me. He plays with a certain blasé non-attachment, and I'm a very intense energetic player. So to me, his playing seemed almost random, but over time, I began to hear the meaning and order in it, even though he doesn't attack the music the way I do. And I learned something from that and I will on occasion try to add an element of that approach into my playing. And however I do it, it will ultimately come out in the form of my own personality. It was very interesting going through that process because so many people love what he did and I just was not hearing it. But I really put some effort into it and discovered a whole new interesting way to approach improvising.

AAJ: Your sense of rhythm is different from Bailey's.

SS: Yes, and there are some things that Anthony Braxton does that I'd love to be able to do, but it's just not me. I like sustained energy and textures and split tones. And you can still have space within that energy. Some players use a lot of space and adopt a kind of minimalist approach, but to succeed, you still have to sustain the energy of the piece.

AAJ: That energy is what a lot of us love about jazz.

Swell's Innovative Work in the Schools and with People with Disabilities

AAJ: Now, I'd like to shift over a bit to another aspect of your career. You're a very active educator. Not only do you work with students in the school system, you also work with kids with handicaps and medical problems in interesting, compassionate ways. This may in fact be a trend among musicians. For example, the pianist Danilo Perez told me he increasingly thinks of the healing power of music and as a form of therapy. Another pianist, Tom Lawton, composed a piece specifically for senior citizens. Neuroscientists are studying the relationship between the brain and music. So there's a lot of potential here for jazz musicians to contribute to the helping process.

SS: Oliver Sachs is one of many people who have written about this. [See Sachs' book, Musicophilia, Knopf, 2007—Eds.] I'm not a trained therapist, but I like doing this sort of thing and I improvise with it and see what will happen. Sometimes I'll have say twenty kids in wheel chairs, or a group of kids with brain disabilities, or they have speech difficulties, or they're in the autistic spectrum. I've worked with a very wide range of disabilities. I've found that music does do something important for these folks. I see it in their eyes. For example, I am working with a girl right now who never speaks. So I'll do something very simple, like have the group sing, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." So, we'll sing it every week for a while, and all of a sudden, the girl starts saying, "Michael!" At that moment, you know that you've touched something she's been processing for all those weeks!

I believe these kids are very engaged with life even if we can't see it at first. They may be having a very different experience from us so-called normal folks, but they still want to be connected to all of us. My experience is that they're taking in and processing everything, but maybe not the in the same way we do. I think there is much to be learned and we need to promote research in that respect. Also, it can enhance our own creativity and imagination by looking at the world from the perspective of people with such disabilities. This work is very rewarding for me.

And by the way, using repetition a great deal with these kids and adults, I believe, as we were talking about earlier, that repeated listenings to the free jazz, new music will have the same affect and I think your brain will more likely process it in a way that you will begin to understand and enjoy it after a while. A good friend of mine Garrison Fewell said something great to me recently. He said we look at abstract paintings and read poetry not just for the pure enjoyment of it but to stimulate our own individual creativity and I think free jazz and new music does the same thing and has actually been doing that with musicians and listeners sometimes not even being aware of it because it is out there so much more now and has seeped even into some mainstream players' music.

AAJ: You should be praised for being of such help to these kids, who are often "warehoused" and ignored. I'm hearing more and more from musicians who are doing volunteer work. They go to medical facilities and senior centers and perform for the people. There is increasing evidence that music has healing potential. It can reduce stress, help the immune system, strengthen the nervous system, and so on. Musicians have a lot to offer.

SS: Music isn't just a profession. It's part of all our lives. My whole family played music together. It's only natural that we would bring it to people who are hurting in various ways. I'm glad to hear that such activity is expanding. I go to Goodwill Centers in New York working with autistic adults. Bobby Zankel teaches music in the prison system. I know a lot of musicians doing this kind of work now. It's some of the most rewarding work I do.

AAJ: Music originated in tribes and communities. Jazz originated in African tribal music, gospel singing, and marching bands. Music is not just done in a nightclub or concert hall. It's everywhere. It's part of our communal life together.

SS: Musicians can also serve as mentors, helping kids to develop the right attitudes and values.

AAJ: Music teachers often have a positive influence in the lives of their students. They can help build self- esteem and passion.

SS: Absolutely! And they teach discipline.

Spiritual and Personal Life; New Projects

AAJ: To change the subject, I always ask musicians about their spirituality and philosophy of life. What is your take on spiritual matters? Do you have a spiritual practice?

SS: Absolutely. I grew up in a religious mixed marriage. My father was Jewish and my mother was Christian. I went to both churches and synagogues as a kid. The bottom line is that my parents planted the seeds for my ongoing inquiry into my inner workings. Prayer was an important part of my childhood. In the 1970s, I got into Buddhist meditation. Currently, I meditate every day. I meditate using things I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh and Nisargadatta and was part of the Nichiren Shoshu community in the 1970s.

AAJ: What are some of your interests other than music?

SS: Every summer, I go camping with my girlfriend in the Adirondacks, Maine, the White Mountains, the Berkshires, the Green Mountains. I'm also a voracious reader. I love reading the classics, poetry. I write some poetry and do some painting.

AAJ: Do you include your poetry in some of your music, as Cecil Taylor does?

SS: Occasionally I do, but not on a regular basis. When I write for voice, I sometimes use my own poetry. Music for me always involves other musicians—it's very social. Poetry and painting allow me the solitude I sometimes need.

AAJ: What do you have coming up in terms of projects and gigs? And how do you envision your life in the next few years?

SS: For one thing, I'm hoping to get some grants. I'm going to Europe in September with Gerhard Ullmann, the German saxophonist. We have Gerald Cleaver and the wonderful bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. We have some radio gigs and a concert in Hamburg and Berlin.

AAJ: Germany seems to be a center of jazz today.

SS: Germany, but also France, Poland, and other countries. In October, I'm involved with a project of William Parker, we're playing the Edge Fest in Ann Arbor and in Connecticut. I will also be doing a tour in November with Frode Gjerstad, Paal Nilsen-Love and Jan Rune-Strom in the U.S. and Canada.

AAJ: William Parker is an amazing avant- garde jazz bassist, composer, band leader.

SS: Yes. He's the fulcrum of what I would call the traditional avant-garde African-American centered music that came out of the 1960s. We've know each other for a long time now, and any chance I have to be involved in one of his projects is great. He did a beautiful Duke Ellington tribute concert in Italy a couple of years ago, which was released on his Centering Music label. He deserves all the recognition he seems to be getting now. He's not only a great musician, he's also a wonderful person. He frequently helps people in need and is very community-oriented.

AAJ: Do you have any upcoming record releases?

SS: I have a recording set for release in 2016 with Dave Burrell, Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver on the RogueArt label. I just got commissioned by Silkheart Records in Sweden to do a Bela Bartok- related work. That will include Rob Brown, Connie Crothers, and Andrew Cyrille. And I'm going to do a trio tour with Peter Brotzman and Paal Nilsen-Love in February in Austria, Germany, and Italy.

AAJ: Finally, what would you like to suggest to young and talented musicians about how to develop their careers?

SS: I'd recommend two things. First, get out and do every possible live gig you can do, in any genre, just do everything, even if it's a wedding or bar mitzvah. Play standards, salsa, R&B, free jazz, whatever. Second, listen to things you might not normally listen to.

Photo Credit: Michael Galinsky

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