Krin Gabbard – “The Loneliest Monk” (1964)

November 27, 2008 at 9:05 am (Reviews & Articles, Thelonious Monk)

This article on Thelonious Monk comes from Time magazine, Feb. 28, 1964…


Everyone who came to meet his plane wore a fur hat, and the sight was too much for him to bear. “Man, we got to have those!” he told his sidemen, and for fear that the hat stores would be closed before they could get to downtown Helsinki, they fled from the welcome-to-Finland ceremonies as fast as decency permitted. And sure enough, when Thelonious Monk shambled out on the stage of the Kulttuuritalo that night to the spirited applause of 2,500 young Finns, there on his head was a splendid creation in fake lamb’s-wool.

At every turn of his long life in jazz, Monk’s hats have described him almost as well as the name his parents had the crystal vision to invent for him 43 years ago — Thelonious Sphere Monk. It sounds like an alchemist’s formula or a yoga ritual, but during the many years when its owner merely strayed through life (absurd beneath a baseball cap), it was the perfect name for the legends dreamed up to account for his sad silence. “Thelonious Monk? He’s a recluse, man.” In the mid-’40s, when Monk’s reputation at last took hold in the jazz underground, his name and his mystic utterances (“It’s always night or we wouldn’t need light”) made him seem the ideal Dharma Bum to an audience of hipsters: anyone who wears a Chinese coolie hat and has a name like that must be cool.

High Philosophy. Now Monk has arrived at the summit of serious recognition he deserved all along, and his name is spoken with the quiet reverence that jazz itself has come to demand. His music is discussed in composition courses at Juilliard, sophisticates find in it affinities with Webern, and French Critic Andre Hodeir hails him as the first jazzman to have “a feeling for specifically modern esthetic values.” The complexity jazz has lately acquired has always been present in Monk’s music, and there is hardly a jazz musician playing who is not in some way indebted to him. On his tours last year he bought a silk skullcap in Tokyo and a proper chapeau at Christian Dior’s in Paris; when he comes home to New York next month with his Finnish lid, he will say with inner glee, “Yeah—I got it in Helsinki.” The spectacle of Monk at large in Europe last week was cheerful evidence of his new fame—and evidence, too, of how far jazz has come from its Deep South beginnings. In Amsterdam, Monk and his men were greeted by a sellout crowd of 2,000 in the Concertgebouw, and their Düsseldorf audience was so responsive that Monk gave the Germans his highest blessing: “These cats are with it!” The Swedes were even more hip; Monk played to a Stockholm audience that applauded some of his compositions on the first few bars, as if he were Frank Sinatra singing Night and Day, and Swedish television broadcast the whole concert live. Such European enthusiasm for a breed of cat many Americans still consider weird, if not downright wicked, may seem something of a puzzle. But to jazzmen touring Europe, it is one more proof that the limits of the art at home are more sociological than esthetic.

Though Monk’s career has been painful and often thankless, it has also been a tortoise-and-hare race with flashier, more ingratiating men—many of whom got lost in narcotic fogs, died early in squalor and disgrace or abandoned their promise, to fall silent on their horns. Monk goes on. It is his high philosophy to be different and having steadily ignored all advice and all the fads and vogues of jazz that made lesser musicians grow rich around him, he now reaps the rewards of his conviction gladly but without surprise. He has a dignified, three-album-a-year contract with Columbia Records, his quartet could get bookings 52 weeks a year, and his present tour of Europe is almost a sell-out in 20 cities from Helsinki to Milan. In his first fat year, Monk earned $50,000, and on checks as well as autograph books he signs his grand name grandly, like a man drawing a bird.

Monk’s lifework of 57 compositions is a diabolical and witty self-portrait, a string of stark snapshots of his life in New York. Changing meters, unique harmonies and oddly voiced chords create the effect of a desperate conversation in some other language, a fit of drunken laughter, a shout from a park at night. His melodies make mocking twins of naivete and cynicism, of ridicule and fond memory. Ruby, My Dear and Nutty are likably simple; Off Minor and Trinkle Tinkle are so complex that among pianists only Monk and his early protege, Bud Powell, have been able to improvise freely upon them.

Monk’s inimitable piano style is such an integral part of the music he has written that few jazz pianists have much luck with even the Monk tunes that have become part of the standard jazz repertory. Monk himself plays with deliberate incaution, attacking the piano as if it were a carillon’s keyboard or a finely tuned set of 88 drums. The array of sounds he divines from his Baldwin grand are beyond the reach of academic pianists; he caresses a note with the tremble of a bejeweled finger, then stomps it into its grave with a crash of elbow and forearm aimed with astonishing accuracy at a chromatic tone cluster an octave long.

Monk’s best showcase has always been a cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side called the Five Spot, where he ended a highly successful seven-month engagement in January. The ambiance of the Five Spot is perfect for Monk’s mood—dark, a little dank, smoke-soaked and blue. Night after night, Monk would play his compositions—the same tunes over and over again, with what appeared to be continuing fascination with all that they have to say.

Then he would rise from the piano to perform his Monkish dance. It is always the same. His feet stir in a soft shuffle, spinning him slowly in small circles. His head rolls back until hat brim meets collar, while with both hands he twists his goatee into a sharp black scabbard. His eyes are hooded with an abstract sleepiness, his lips are pursed in a meditative O. His cultists may crowd the room, but when he moves among them, no one risks speaking: he is absorbed in a fragile trance, and his three sidemen play on while he dances alone in the darkness. At the last cry of the saxophone, he dashes to the piano and his hands strike the keys in a cat’s pounce. From the first startled chord, his music has the urgency of fire bells.

Pretty Butterfly. At the piano, Monk is clearly tending to business, but once he steps away from it, people begin to wonder. Aside from his hat and the incessant shuffle of his feet, he looks like a perfectly normal neurotic. “Solid!” and “All reet!” are about all he will say in the gravelly sigh that serves as his voice, but his friends attribute great spiritual strength to him. Aware of his power over people, Monk is enormously selfish in the use of it. Passive, poutish moods sweep over him as he shuffles about, looking away, a member of the race of strangers.

Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations. Predictably, Monk is highly unpredictable. When gay, he is gentle and blithe to such a degree that he takes to dancing on the sidewalks, buying extravagant gifts for anyone who comes to mind, playing his heart out. One day last fall he swept into his brother’s apartment to dance before a full-length mirror so he could admire his collard-leaf boutonniere; he left without a word. “Hey!” he will call out. “Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene up in my neighborhood, there’s this butterfly, and he flies any way he wanna.

Yeah. Black and yellow butterfly. Pretty butterfly.” At such times, he seems a very happy man.

At other times he appears merely mad. He has periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute.

He stays up for days on end, prowling around desperately in his rooms, troubling his friends, playing the piano as if jazz were a wearying curse. In Boston Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and though the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again, he now tells it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he says with conviction, ” ’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.”

Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.” Lately, though, Monk has been more mannerly and conventional.

He says he hates the “mad genius” legend he has lived with for 20 years— though he’s beginning to wonder politely about the “genius” part.

Monk’s speculations were greatly encouraged in December, when he crowned all his recent achievements with a significant trip uptown from the Five Spot to Philharmonic Hall. There he presided over a concert by a special ten-piece ensemble and his own quartet.

The music was mainly Monk’s own— nine compositions from the early / Mean You to Oska T., which he wrote last summer under a title that is his own transcription of an Englishman’s saying “Ask for T.” (“And the T,” says Thelonious, “is me.”) The concert was the most successful jazz event of the season, and Monk greeted his triumph with grace and style. At the piano he turned to like a blacksmith at a cranky forge— foot flapping madly, a moan of exertion fleeing his lips. The music he made suggested that the better he is received by his audience the better he gets.

Happenings in Harlem. For Monk, the pleasure of playing in Philharmonic Hall was mainly geographical. The hall was built three blocks from the home he has occupied for nearly 40 years, and Monk serenely regards the choice of the site as a favor to him from the city fathers, a personal convenience, along with the new bank and the other refinements that urban renewal has brought to his old turf. The neighborhood, in Manhattan’s West 60s, is called San Juan Hill. It is one of the oldest and most decent of the city’s Negro ghettos. Monk’s family settled there in 1924, coming north from Rocky Mount, N.C., where Thelonious was born.

He was a quiet, obedient, polite child, but his name very quickly set him apart.

“Nobody messed with Thelonious,” he recalls, “but they used to call me ‘Monkey,’ and you know what a drag that was.” His father returned to the South alone to recover from a long illness, leaving Monk’s mother, a sternly correct civil servant, to work hard to give her three children a genteel polish. At eleven, Thelonious began weekly piano lessons at 75¢ an hour.

It took Monk only a year to discover that the pianists he really admired were not in the books—such players as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson. By the time he was 14, Monk was playing jazz at hard-times “rent parties” up in Harlem. He soon began turning up every Wednesday for amateur night at the Apollo Theater, but he won so often that he was eventually barred from the show. He was playing stride piano—a single note on the first and third beats of the bar, a chord on the second and fourth. Unable to play with the rococo wizardry of Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson, though, he found a way of his own. His small hands and his unusual harmonic sense made his style unique.

Monk quit high school at 16 to go on tour with a divine healer—”we played and she healed.” But within a year he was back in New York, playing the piano at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street.

The street was jumping in those days, and in advance of the vogue, Monk bought a zoot suit and grew a beard; his mood, for a change, was just right for the time. The jazz world was astir under the crushing weight of swing; the big dance bands had carried off the healthiest child of Negro music and starved it of its spirit until its parents no longer recognized it. In defiant self-defense, Negro players were developing something new—”something they can’t play,” Monk once called it—and at 19, Monk got to the heart of things by joining the house band at Minton’s.

The New Sound. All the best players of the time would drop by to sit in at Minton’s. Saxophonist Charlie (“Bird”) Parker, Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Drummer Kenny Clarke and Guitarist Charlie Christian were all regulars and, in fitful collaboration with them, Monk presided at the birth of bop. His playing was a needling inspiration to the others. Rhythms scrambled forward at his touch; the oblique boldness of his harmonies forced the horn players into flights the likes of which had never been heard before. “The Monk runs deep,” Bird would say, and with some reluctance Monk became “the High Priest of Bebop.” The name of the new sound, Monk now says, was a slight misunderstanding of his invention: “I was calling it bipbop, but the others must have heard me wrong.” When bop drifted out of Harlem and into wider popularity after the war, Monk was already embarked on his long and lonely scuffle. Straight bop— which still determines the rhythm sense of most jazzmen—was only a passing phase for Monk. He was outside the mainstream, playing a lean, dissonant, unresolved jazz that most players found perilously difficult to accompany. Many musicians resented him, and he quickly lost his grip on steady jobs. Alone in his room, where he had composed his earliest music—’Round Midnight, Well, You Needn’t, Ruby, My Dear—he worked or simply stared at the picture of Billie Holiday tacked to his ceiling.

In 1947 he made his first recording under his own name and witnessed, to his horror, a breathless publicity campaign that sounded as if the Abominable Snowman had been caged by Blue Note Records.

The same year, Monk married a neighborhood girl named Nellie Smith, who had served a long and affectionate apprenticeship lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes. Monk had always been unusually devoted to his mother; Nellie simply moved into his room so he could stay home with mom. Thus, to his intense satisfaction, he had two mothers. He still found jobs hard to come by, so Nellie went to work as a clerk to buy him clothes and cheer him up with pocket money.

A Drink at Least. Things were terrible until 1951, when they got worse.

Monk was arrested along with Bud Powell when a packet of heroin was found in their possession. Monk had always been “clean,” but he refused to let Powell take the rap alone. “Every day I would plead with him,” Nellie says. ” ‘Thelonious, get yourself out of this trouble. You didn’t do anything.’ But he’d just say, ‘Nellie, I have to walk the streets when I get out. I can’t talk.'” Monk held his silence and was given 60 days in jail.

As soon as he was released, the police canceled his “cabaret card,” a document required of all entertainers who appear in New York nightclubs.

Losing the card cost Monk his slender livelihood, but he had a reputation as an oddball and the police were adamant. For six years Monk could not play in New York; though he made a few records and went out on the road now and then, he was all but silenced. “Everybody was saying Thelonious was weird or locked up,” Nellie recalls. “But they just talked that way because they’d never see him. He hated to be asked why he wasn’t working, and he didn’t want to see anybody unless he could buy them a drink at least.

Besides, it hurts less to be passed over for jobs if you aren’t around to hear the others’ names called. It was a bad time. He even had to pay to get into Birdland.” Monk was the man who was not with it, and jazz was passing him by.

Miles Davis had come on with his “impressionist” jazz style—a rubato blowing in spurts and swoons, free of any vibrato, cooler than ice. The Modern Jazz Quartet was playing a kind of introverted 17th century jazz behind inscrutable faces, and Dave Brubeck (TIME cover, Nov. 8, 1954) introduced polished sound that came with the complete approval of Darius Milhaud. Suddenly jazz—one of the loveliest and loneliest of sounds, the creation of sad and sensitive men—was awash with rondos and fugues. The hipsters began dressing like graduate students.

Money & Medicine. Monk was sustained during much of this bleak time by his friend, mascot and champion, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, 50. The baroness had abandoned the aseptic, punctual world of her family* for the formless life of New York’s night people. In 1955 she acquired undeserved notoriety when Charlie Parker died in her apartment (BOP KING DIES IN HEIRESS’ FLAT); she had merely made an honest stab at saving his life with gifts of money and medicine in his last few days. From then on, though, Nica cut a wide swath in the jazz world.

She is, after all, not a Count Basie or a Duke Ellington, but an honest-to-God Baroness; seeing her pull up in her Bentley with a purse crammed with Chivas Regal, the musicians took enormous pride in her friendship.

Monk was her immediate fascination, and Monk, who only has eyes for Nellie, cheerfully took her on as another mother. She gave him rides, rooms to compose and play in and, in 1957, help in getting back the vital cabaret card. The baroness, along with Monk’s gentle manager, a Queens high school teacher named Harry Colomby, collected medical evidence that Monk was not a junkie, along with character references by jazzmen and musical scholars. The cops gave in, and for the first time in years Monk began playing regularly in New York. The music he made at the Five Spot with Tenorman John Coltrane was the talk of jazz.

Monk was making a small but admired inroad into the “funk” and “soul” movements that had superseded the “cool.” Funk was a deeper reach into Negro culture than jazz had taken before, a restatement of church music and African rhythms, but its motive was the same as bop’s—finding something that white musicians had not taken over and, if possible, something they would sound wrong playing.

Then Monk lost his card again.

Monk, the baroness, and Monk’s present saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, 39, were driving through Delaware for a week’s work in Baltimore. Monk stopped at a motel for a drink of water, and when he lingered in his imposing manner, the manager called the police.

Monk was back in the Bentley when the cops arrived, and he held fast to the steering wheel when they tried to pull him out—on the Monkish ground that he had done nothing to deserve their attention. Even though the baroness shrieked to watch out for his hands, the furious cops gave his knuckles such a beating that he bears the lumps to this day. The baroness took the rap for “some loose marijuana” found in the trunk, but after three years’ legal maneuvering she was acquitted. No narcotics charges were placed against Monk, but because of the scandal the police again picked up his card.

You Tell ‘Em. Two years later, after further lobbying at Headquarters, Monk returned to the scene. Since then his luck has changed. Three years have passed without a whisper of trouble.

Abroad, at least, he is approached as if he were a visiting professor. (Interview on an Amsterdam radio station last week: “Who has had the greatest influence on your playing, Mr. Monk?” “Well, me, of course.”) Most pleasing of all to Monk is a new quartet led by Soprano Saxophonist Steve Lacy that is dedicated solely to the propagation of Monk’s music. In the past Monk has been the only voice of his music; he even has trouble finding sidemen.

His present accompanists—Rouse on tenor, Butch Warren, 24, on bass, and Ben Riley, 30, on drums—have a good feeling for his music. Rouse is a hard-sound player who knows that his instrument suggests a human cry more than a bird song, and he plays as if he is speaking the truth. Warren’s rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk’s rhythms if not his harmonic ideals; he is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace. Riley has just joined the band, but he could be the man Monk has been looking for. A great drummer, as the nonpareil Baby Dodds once observed, “ought to make the other fellas feel like playing.” Riley does exactly that, with a subtle, very musical use of the drums that forsakes thunder for thoughtfulness.

Monk’s sidemen traditionally hang back, smiling and relaxed, and apart from an occasional Rouse solo, they seem content to let Monk lead. “That’s right, Monk,” they seem to be saying, “you tell ’em, baby.” But Monk demands that musicians be themselves. “A man’s a genius just for looking like himself,” he will say. “Play yourself!” With such injunctions in the air, the quartet’s performances are uneven. Some nights all four play as though their very lives are at stake; some nights, wanting inspiration, all four sink without a bubble. But it is part of Monk’s mystique never to fire anyone. He just waits, hoping to teach, trusting that a man who cannot learn will eventually sense the master’s indifference and discreetly abandon ship.

Now that Monk is being heard regularly, he seems more alone than ever. Jazz has unhappily splintered into hostile camps, musically and racially. Lyrical and polished players are accused of “playing white,” which means to pursue beauty before truth. The spirit and sound of each variety of jazz is carefully analyzed, isolated and pronounced a “bag.” Players in the soul bag, the African bag and the freedom bag are all after various hard, aggressive and free sounds, and there are also those engaged in “action blowing,” a kind of shrieking imitation of action painting.

Within each bag, imitation of the “daddy” spreads through the ranks like summer fires. Trumpeters try to play like Miles Davis. And hold their horns like Miles. And dress like Miles. Bassists imitate Charlie Mingus or Scott La Faro; drummers, Max Roach or Elvin Jones. Sax players copy Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, who is presently so much the vogue that the sound of his whole quartet is being echoed by half the jazz groups in the country.

Bud Powell, Red Garland, Bill Evans and Horace Silver all have had stronger influences than Monk’s on jazz pianists. Monk’s sound is so obviously his own that to imitate it would be as risky and embarrassing as affecting a Chinese accent when ordering chop suey. Besides, Monk is off in a bag all his own, and in the sleek, dry art that jazz threatens to become, that is the best thing about him.

A Curse in Four Beats. In the gossipy world of jazz, Monk is also less discussed than many others. Occasionally he will say some splendid thing and the story will make the rounds, but there are personalities more actively bizarre than Monk’s around. Rollins is a Rosicrucian who contemplates the East River, letting his telephone ring in his ear for hours while he studies birds from his window. Mingus is so obsessed with goblins from the white world that person to person he is as perverse as a roulette wheel; his analyst wrote the notes for his last record jacket. Coltrane is a health addict—doing pushups, scrubbing his teeth, grinding up cabbages.

And Miles Davis. Miles broods in his beautiful town house, teaching his son to box so that he won’t fear white men, raging at every corner of a world that has made him wealthy, a world that is now, in Guinea and the Congo as well as in Alabama and New York, filled with proud little boys who call themselves Miles Davis. He is a man who needs to shout, but his anger is trapped in a hoarse whisper caused by an injury to his vocal cords. The frustration shows.

Onstage, he storms inwardly, glaring at his audience, wincing at his trumpet, stabbing and tugging at his ear. Often his solos degenerate into a curse blown again and again through his horn in four soft beats. But Miles can break hearts.

Without attempting the strident showmanship of most trumpeters, he still creates a mood of terror suppressed— a lurking and highly exciting impression that he may some day blow his brains out playing. No one, Dizzy Gillespie included, does it so well.

Racial woes are at the heart of much bad behavior in jazz, and the racial question is largely a confusion between life and art. Negroes say whites cannot play, when they mean that whites have always taken more money out of jazz than their music warranted. Whites complain of “Crow Jim” when what they mean is that work is scarcer than ever—even for them. The fact is that most of the best jazz musicians are Negroes and there is very little work to go around on either side.

At bars and back tables in the 20 or so good jazz clubs in the country, talented, frustrated musicians—many of them historic figures in jazz—hang around in the hope of hearing their names called, like longshoremen at a midnight shape-up. Junkies who were good players a year ago swoop through the clubs in search of a touch, faces faintly dusty, feet itching, nodding, scratching. The simple jazz fans in the audience sit shivering in the cold fog of hostility the players blow down from the stand. A dig-we-must panic inhibits them from displaying any enthusiasm— which only further convinces the players that their music is lost on the wind.

An Oriental Garden. Monk surveys these sad facts with some bitterness. “I don’t have any musician friends,” he says. “I was friends to lots of musicians, but looks like they weren’t friends to me.” He sometimes makes quiet and kindly gestures—such as sending some money to Bud Powell, caged in a tuberculosis sanatorium outside Paris—but his words are hard. “All you’re supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them,” he says.

“If you ain’t doing that, you just ain’t a musician. Nothing more to it than that.” Now that his turn has come, Monk cuts a fine figure on the scene. Nellie spends a hysterical hour every evening getting him into his ensemble, and when he steps out the door he looks faintly like an Oriental garden—subtle colors echoing back and forth, prim suits and silk shirts glimmering discreetly. He spends hours standing around with his band, talking in his impenetrable, oracular mode. “All ways know, always night, all ways know—and dig the way I say ‘all ways,’ ” he says, smiling mysteriously. When he is playing anywhere near New York, the baroness comes to drive him home, and they fly off in the Bentley, content in the knowledge that there is no one remotely like either one of them under the sun. They race against the lights for the hell of it, and when the car pulls up in Monk’s block, he skips out and disappears into his old $39-a-month apartment. The baroness then drives home to Weehawken, where she lives in a luxurious bedroom oasis, surrounded by the reeking squalor her 32 cats have created in the other rooms.

Monk spends lazy days at home with Nellie—”layin’ dead,” he calls it. Their two children, Thelonious, 14, and Barbara, 10, are off in boarding schools, and Monk’s slumbers go undisturbed.

Nellie flies around through the narrow paths left between great piles of possessions, tending to his wants. Clothes are in the sink, boxes and packages are on the chairs; Monk’s grand piano stands in the kitchen, the foundation for a tower of forgotten souvenirs, phone books, a typewriter, old magazines and groceries. From his bed Monk announces his wishes (“Nellie! Ice cream!”), and Nellie races to serve; she retaliates gently by calling him “Melodious Thunk” in quiet mutters over the sink.

Nellie and the few other people who have ever known Monk in the slightest all see a great inner logic to his life that dignifies everything he says and does.

He never lies. He never shouts. He has no greed. He has no envy. His message, as Nellie interprets it to their children, is noble and strong. “Be yourself,” she tells them. “Don’t bother about what other people say, because you are you! The thing to be is just yourself.” She also tells them that Monk is no one special, but the children have seen him asleep with his Japanese skullcap on his head or with a cabbage leaf drooping from his lapel, and they know better.

“I try to tell them different,” Nellie says, “but of course I can’t. After all, if Thelonious isn’t special, then what is?”

Krin Gabbard

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Hamilton Bohannon – “Bohannon’s Disco Symphony” (1977)

November 27, 2008 at 8:48 am (Funk)

Producer, bandleader, drummer & singer Hamilton Bohannon, usually known as simply Bohannon, made many great funk tracks during the 70s. This (obviously) disco-flavored funk monster comes from the 1977 album Phase II.

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Clifford Brown and Max Roach – “Jacqui” (1955)

November 27, 2008 at 8:35 am (Jazz)

The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet doing “Jacqui” – from the album Study in Brown.  
One of the premier early hard bop units, they had unlimited potential. Sadly, Brown died in a car accident at the age of 25. It was one of the great losses in jazz history. He was already one of the great trumpeters in the business, and unlike most of his peers, was not involved in drugs. He could have gone far. But what he did accomplish is amazing in itself.

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Sonny Rollins Quartet – “Paul’s Pal” (1956)

November 27, 2008 at 8:28 am (Jazz)

Taken from the great album Tenor Madness, comes this bright melodic tune.  Pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones (all alumni of Miles Davis) sit in on this memorable session.
This album established “Newk” as one of the premier tenor saxophonists of the 50s.

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Robert Shelton – “Frank Zappa: Son of Suzy Creamcheese” (1966)

November 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm (Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Written for The New York Times, Christmas Day, 1966, The Mothers of Invention were still a new band at this point and had only just come out with their debut album Freak Out! in June. Most people did not know what to make of Zappa & his band of weirdos when they first exploded onto the scene. This was one of the first major articles written about Zappa…


The most original new group to simmer out of the steaming rock’n’roll underground in the last hour and one-half is an audacious crew from the West Coast called The Mothers of Invention. The eight-member group will be appearing through New Year’s Eve at the Balloon Farm, the new haven for young hippies at 23 St. Mark’s Place, atop the Dom.
The Mothers of Invention are primarily musical satirists. Beyond that, they are perhaps the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock’n’roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others. Both in their material and in their looks, they are also furthering some of the more outrageous elements of anti-convention, thus contributing to a new style that might be called “shock rock.”
Compared to the Mothers of Invention, such earlier big-beat groups as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones emerge as Boy Scouts with electric guitars. The hairier-than-thou personnel of The Mothers, include at this writing (“everyone in the band has quit three times”) performers on harmonica, tambourine, percussion and timpani, electric bassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor sax, flute, gongs, electric clavichord and “mouth.” There is a lot of alternation of instruments among the band members. No one knows for sure who plays drums. The father (or Dada) of The Mothers of Invention is 26-year-old Frank Zappa, spindly-framed, sharp-nosed gamester whose appearance suggests some of the more sinister aspects of Edgar Allen Poe, John Carradine and Rasputin. In truth, Mr. Zappa is no more sinister than a cultural revolutionary bent on overthrowing every rule in the music book.
On arriving here, Mr. Zappa took a moment off from worrying about when the plane carrying the bands 18 boxes of equipment would be found by the airline, loosened his pink-on-pink tie from his Carnaby Street collar and explained to a visitor just what he is up to: “I am trying to use the weapons of a disoriented and unhappy society against itself. The Mothers of Invention are designed to come in the back door and kill you while you’re sleeping.” A smile crept through the undergrowth of mustache and goatee, and he continued: “One of our main, short-range objectives is to do away with the top-40 broadcasting format because it is basically wrong, unethical and unmusical . . . Sure, we’re satirists, and we are out to satirize everything. Most of the guys in the band feel that we’re going to do something to help.”
Mr. Zappa was not explicit about how he was going to lead his crusade against the pop and serious music Establishments, other than to get his band’s work more widely heard. Audiences at the Balloon Farm have been listening to variations on Mr. Zappa’s themes with considerable delight. They have heard such Zappa originals as “Help, I’m a Rock” (“. . . dedicated to Elvis Presley. Note the intersting formal structure and the stunning four-part barbershop harmony toward the end. Note the obvious lack of commercial potential. Ho hum”), “Motown Waltz,” “Who Are the Brain Police?” “Wowie Zowie” (“. . . carefully designed to suck the 12-year-old listener into our camp”) and “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.” Other works are entitled “The Mother’s American Pageant,” “The Duke of Prunes,” “Plastic People,” and “Son of Suzy Creamcheese.”
If all of this sounds even a bit outlandish, Mr. Zappa has apparently hit his mark, for he thinks that “freaking out” is an important method of expression and effecting change. He defines “freaking out” as “a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restrictive thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.” Not the least of the fascinations of hearing The Mothers at work are the incidental uses of classical or serious music in rock arrangements. Besides Stravinsky, Mr. Zappa has scored rock adaptations of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Holst’s The Planets and a touch or two of Edgar Varese.
Mr. Zappa began serious composition at the age of 14. “At 15 I gave it up and decided to become a plumber. How long did I stay in plumbing? I’m still a plumber . . .” The Baltimore-born, West-Coast-reared musician has had a turn at nearly every form of music extant. He has written “serious” works for string quartet, chamber orchestra, scores for the films World’s Greatest Sinner and Run Home Slow. He describes the latter as the only known cowboy picture using electronic music, in which the good guys presumably head off the bad guys at the oscillator. Mr. Zappa had almost despaired of “making it” in serious American music, but admits that he might make it through the back door of rock’n’roll. But “rock is not just a stepping-stone,” he cautions. “Rock is tha only living music in America today. It’s alive. I’m bringin music music [serious or classical concepts] to our rock arrangements. Stravinsky in rock is like a get-acquainted offer, a loss-leader. It’s a gradual progression to bring in my own ‘serious’ music.”
Listening to The Mothers of Invention is an adventure, in which the auditor is warned to expect veering curves and sudden changes. Some of it is psychedelic sound (without the drugs), some is a marvelous spoof on the late-1950’s teen-scene nonsense, some of it is social comment on the hypocrisies of contemporary life, and some of it is just, to use Mr. Zappa’s phrase, “music music.”
Mr. Zappa urges that every lover of pop music run out and buy the Vanguard recording of Varese’s futuristic “Ameriques.” “It blows my mind. It’s my favorite top-40 record.”

Robert Shelton

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Frank Zappa – “Lumpy Gravy” (1967)

November 26, 2008 at 9:41 pm (Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Sometimes referred to as his “favorite album,” this perplexing but always fascinating album (technically his first “solo” album) came out briefly in 1967 on Capital Records in 4-track cartridge tape form. Zappa’s label at the time, MGM, threatened legal action and it was pulled. The 4-track cartridge system was an early competitor to the more successful 8-track tape format. According to Zappa himself, the Capitol 4-track of Lumpy Gravy is one of the rarest official Zappa releases – if not the rarest. Capitol had also begun preparation of the vinyl LP record as well as a 7″ single from the album (“Sink Trap” b/w “Gypsy Airs”) but these did not get past the test pressing stage.
The MGM/Verve version of the album was released on LP record and 4-track cartridge in May 1968 and later in an 8-track cartridge version also.
This review comes from issue #13 of
Rolling Stone (June 22, 1968) by Jim Miller. This album, then as now, has always divided listeners.
I just read that Frank’s widow Gail said a 40-year anniversary deluxe edition is supposed to come out very soon… 


Lumpy Gravy is the most curious album Frank Zappa has been involved in to date, and in many ways the music just doesn’t make it; as it says on the cover, “a curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.” The record was recorded in February of 1967, and Zappa conducts the “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,” which is made of stray Mothers and some of Hollywood’s top studio musicians. On the back of the album we are asked by Zappa, “Is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It for the Money?” but Lumpy Gravy is hardly a sequel in quality or kind to Money, although it does share some thematic material with the later Mothers’ group.

Lumpy Gravy carries to an extreme the protean, fragmented musical approach that Zappa favors, but on the whole the work is rather inert. The composition is liberally garnished with dialogues about everything from living in drums to pigs with wings, but most of these spoken sections seem rather artificially forced. There are several jabs at surfing music, and the record closes with an instrumental version of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” that could have been arranged by the Ventures. In contrast some sections of Lumpy Gravy are so extremely chromatic that they verge on “atonality;” these passages are usually scored for strings and/or woodwinds, although towards the end of the second side an atonal passage for wind instruments is incongruously accompanied by a studio drummer.

Parts of Lumpy Gravy break down into cliched lush string writing, while other parts abound in burps and bits of electronic music not unlike sections of “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.”

Yet in spite of its varied tricks, Lumpy Gravy does not come to life; it is a strangely sterile recording, as though all the studio musicians reading their music could not do what a batch of well-rehearsed Mothers can do. Missing are the songs and the energy of the Mothers, with all their casually tossed off mistakes vocally and brilliance instrumentally; furthermore what Zappa has lost by not using the smaller Mothers he has not really gained back by using a huge orchestra. The texture of the music (and the scoring of the instruments, for that matter) is surprisingly conventional and even boring, especially if one is familiar with Zappa’s love of burps, aimless dialogue and certain kinds of electronic music.

Nevertheless Lumpy Gravy is an important album, if only because Frank Zappa is one of rock’s foremost minds. This album, recorded well over a year ago, demonstrates the problems that serious rock as a whole faces, as well as the compositional limitations (as of a year and a half ago) of one of serious rock’s leading voices. Lumpy Gravy can hardly be called successful, yet it points the way towards more integrated, formal protean compositions such as Zappa’s masterpiece We’re Only In It for the Money. It might be said that Zappa makes mistakes other rock composers would be proud to call their own best music; Lumpy Gravy is an idiosyncratic musical faux pas that is worth listening to for that reason alone. 


Jim Miller

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Tangerine Dream – “Alpha Centauri” (1971)

November 26, 2008 at 9:16 pm (Krautrock, Reviews & Articles, Tangerine Dream)

Written by someone named stereomachine, this was written for the Head Heritage/Unsung website (to which I have contributed pieces over the years), Feb. 5, 2005. Link to this site is in the blogroll section…
The first Tangerine Dream album, called Electronic Meditation did not contain any synthesizer, which makes it an anomaly in the band’s catalog, who’s made reputation by using all the cutting edge synth technology in past three or four decades. Rather, it was a jam session made by a psychedelic rock band interested in improvisation and unusual unconventional sound experimentation, which was marred by being a bit too unfocused. The line-up consisted of, besides guitarist Edgar Froese, multi-instrumentalist Conrad Schnitzler and drummer Klaus Schulze, both of whom became solo artists using mainly electronics, just as would Tangerine Dream subsequently. After Electronic Meditation, changes would come: exit Shnitzler and Schulze, enter Christopher Franke and Steve Schroyder, the latter being an organist who was however kicked out of the band after recording the second album, the former being a multi-talented young 17-year old drummer also having interest in the works of Stockhausen and Ligeti, and who had acquired a VCS-3 synthesizer. Not only did the line-up change drastically, but the music was about to change as well. Exit (most of the) rock influences, enter synthesizer experimentation and space themes.
Recorded in January 1971, this album consists of three pieces. Original Side 1 had two shorter songs, which were one foot stuck in the original Pink Floyd-ish psychedelic space rock influences, and other foot stepping to the furthest reaches of unworldly cosmos in its avant-garde electronics, whereas side 2 would embrace the latter paradigm fully. “Sunrise in the Third System” opens up with delicate plucking of a harp-like instrument which gives way for church like organ playing a meandering pseudo-classical chord progression in the minor A key, which resembles the final part of Pink Floyd’s “A Saucerful Of Secrets” with Edgar Froese’s eerie ghost-like moaning glissando guitar taking the centre-stage in the composition. This 4-minute track also sets the whole mood for the album; dark, desolate, “abandon-all-hope” type of gloom and sense of tragedy mixed with far out trippy spaciousness.
Coming next is 13-minute “Fly and Collision of Comas Sola”, which appears to be the most structured composition on the album, opening with trippy violent pulsating VCS3 signals, then followed by fading in of another chord progression in minor A, played on guitar this time around, which forms as a backdrop for more medieval organ melodies and also melancholic flute improvisations, played by guest Udo Dennebourg. Space signals from VCS3 synths (there are two VCS3’s played on the album, one by Chris Franke and the second by another guest, Roland Paulyck) return at the middle of the track and they start burying out all the music played by natural instruments, and just when you think it’s all going to hell, Chris Franke comes in at the 8:30 mark to save the situation and finally provides us the much-needed drum work. Needless to say, it appears that Franke’s drumming abilities proved to be quite underused and under-rated, and he also gave up his drum set by mid-70s, but on here, Franke starts with quiet tom-driven improvisational patterns that suggest typical psychedelic rock motifs, but as his drumming goes louder (and meanwhile, flute returns to the scene as one of the dominant instruments again), it develops into a crashing jazz-inspired drum-solo that would put most generic drum solo muso-ism to shame; a violent energetic free-form fluency that sounds the craziest drum bashing this side of Robert Wyatt, and is truly an equivalent of planets and meteorites crashing into one another and truly a part of the over-all cosmic sound, rather than plain wanky show-off theatre, as most drum solos tend to be.
Finally, the title track of Alpha Centauri, 22-minute improvisational proto-ambient epic to take up the whole original Side 2, and also one of the first side-long cuts, which paves way for everything from their next album Zeit to all their famous lengthy epics like the title track on Phaedra. With rock drums dispensed, and the famous Moog sequencers also still waiting for their exploitation in the later TD era, “AC” has no conventional rhythm to speak of, it’s a large abstract sound sculpture, mixing natural instruments like the opening clanging cymbal washes, improvised flutes and occasional experimental guitar sounds with reverberated droning organs, pulsating synthesizer freak-outs and sine wave generators, and even coffee-machines (as Froese is credited with playing one, but you couldn’t tell). Whole tune builds rather slowly, instruments moan, drone, instead of fast rhythms, the listener is treated to alternation between meditative relaxing sound washes and unsettling eerie shrieks. Beautiful, fragile flute solos that represent the worldlier and more ‘normal’ aspects of the sounds are standing out against the cosmic unworldly forces embodied by dark organs and synthesizers and occasional experimental gliss guitar drones. It is hard to write this kind of music off as boring self-indulgent ambient, this composition has a rather dark and scary, even tragedy-like sense of doom to it, which might come across as a soundtrack to the Judgement Day, and the said otherworldly apocalyptic implications are further helped by the final four minutes when the tune finally settles for another cluster of eerie organ chords, with guest Udo Dennebourg reciting a spoken-word text in German that perfectly seems to fit the over-all concept of God in mono-theistic religions, and the wordless choir-like moaning vocals might suggest either lamenting angels or souls being tormented in Hell, you decide. Except that the ironic thing is, it all sounds so chaotic and improvised that it comes across as stoned-out meandering psychedelic lunacy. But the tone, which closes the 22 minute title track and the whole album, is dark, haunting and dirge-like all the same and the improvisation deprives nothing from the sense of tragedy so present on the entire album.
Alpha Centauri is considered as the “first electronic space album,” and it’s hard-pressed to find any other preceding album that in such grandiouse manner would suggest a lengthy and dramatic exploration of other-wordliness that also implies how most of us are mere mortals who are sometimes, while listening to more upbeat music, too ignorant of the terrifying, but huge forces of the universe which are completely independent of our whims. Tangerine Dream would go on to attempt topping such achievement on their next album Zeit, which, while indeed darker and even more desolate than its predecessor, is ultimately marred by its reduntant ambitiousness and even less focus than found on the title track of Alpha Centauri; and then make their electronic space-rock style more palatable for the whole world with masterpieces like Phaedra, but Alpha Centauri is still one of the most unique works in their lengthy catalog.


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Tom Jones – “A Boy From Nowhere” (Live – 2002)

November 26, 2008 at 11:26 am (Music)

Taken from the DVD Live at Cardiff Castle…   

One of Tom’s most dramatic, brilliant performances…

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Michael McClure – “Maybe Mama Lion” (1989)

November 26, 2008 at 8:57 am (Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

for Ray Manzarek

! !

It’s oh yeah. . . oh yeah . . . ; the wound
papered over, making paper tygers
Out of body in the blackness.
Solid silver blackness of forty billion years
—in an agony of Crazy, knowing nothing
—looking for a self to hold the mind.
The sand underfoot is just a blackness
to hold the blind. Coming back to voices:

—but to the wound!

Many years covered over, still deep
with long stem roses and with ferns.

((Lying on the beach watching chipmunks,
watching chipmunks and BUGS
the leaves.

((There’s a bloody war outside that’s whistling
through the wound!))

out to Someone
and we’re eating rich food, rich food,
with the sound of silver clinking
on the finest plates
we’re eating you
in a dream. You’re a salmon.
California salmon coming back to rivers
flowing from a head
on a cliff where folks look down on
the top of eagle’s wings.


(out of body out of mind)

—while the rain forests are coming down


while the rain forests are coming down

Hear the crashing sound


Your life swinging round

your body.

Does Mama Lion love you?

Does Mama Lion love you?


Can the salmon drown?

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Gregory Corso – “Bomb”

November 26, 2008 at 7:43 am (Gregory Corso, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

Budger of history Brake of time You Bomb
Toy of universe Grandest of all snatched sky I cannot hate you
Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt the jawbone of an ass
The bumpy club of One Million B.C. the mace the flail the axe
Catapult Da Vinci tomahawk Cochise flintlock Kidd dagger Rathbone
Ah and the sad desparate gun of Verlaine Pushkin Dillinger Bogart
And hath not St. Michael a burning sword St. George a lance David a sling
Bomb you are as cruel as man makes you and you’re no crueller than cancer
All Man hates you they’d rather die by car-crash lightning drowning
Falling off a roof electric-chair heart-attack old age old age O Bomb
They’d rather die by anything but you Death’s finger is free-lance
Not up to man whether you boom or not Death has long since distributed its
categorical blue I sing thee Bomb Death’s extravagance Death’s jubilee
Gem of Death’s supremest blue The flyer will crash his death will differ
with the climbor who’ll fall to die by cobra is not to die by bad pork
Some die by swamp some by sea and some by the bushy-haired man in the night
O there are deaths like witches of Arc Scarey deaths like Boris Karloff
No-feeling deaths like birth-death sadless deaths like old pain Bowery
Abandoned deaths like Capital Punishment stately deaths like senators
And unthinkable deaths like Harpo Marx girls on Vogue covers my own
I do not know just how horrible Bombdeath is I can only imagine
Yet no other death I know has so laughable a preview I scope
a city New York City streaming starkeyed subway shelter
Scores and scores A fumble of humanity High heels bend
Hats whelming away Youth forgetting their combs
Ladies not knowing what to do with their shopping bags
Unperturbed gum machines Yet dangerous 3rd rail
Ritz Brothers from the Bronx caught in the A train
The smiling Schenley poster will always smile
Impish death Satyr Bomb Bombdeath
Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
The top of the Empire state
arrowed in a broccoli field in Sicily
Eiffel shaped like a C in Magnolia Gardens
St. Sophia peeling over Sudan
O athletic Death Sportive Bomb
the temples of ancient times
their grand ruin ceased
Electrons Protons Neutrons
gathering Hersperean hair
walking the dolorous gulf of Arcady
joining marble helmsmen
entering the final ampitheater
with a hymnody feeling of all Troys
heralding cypressean torches
racing plumes and banners
and yet knowing Homer with a step of grace
Lo the visiting team of Present
the home team of Past
Lyre and tube together joined
Hark the hotdog soda olive grape
gala galaxy robed and uniformed
commissary O the happy stands
Ethereal root and cheer and boo
The billioned all-time attendance
The Zeusian pandemonium
Hermes racing Owens
The Spitball of Buddha
Christ striking out
Luther stealing third
Planeterium Death Hosannah Bomb
Gush the final rose O Spring Bomb
Come with thy gown of dynamite green
unmenace Nature’s inviolate eye
Before you the wimpled Past
behind you the hallooing Future O Bomb
Bound in the grassy clarion air
like the fox of the tally-ho
thy field the universe thy hedge the geo
Leap Bomb bound Bomb frolic zig and zag
The stars a swarm of bees in thy binging bag
Stick angels on your jubilee feet
wheels of rainlight on your bunky seat
You are due and behold you are due
and the heavens are with you
hosanna incalescent glorious liaison
BOMB O havoc antiphony molten cleft BOOM
Bomb mark infinity a sudden furnace
spread thy multitudinous encompassed Sweep
set forth awful agenda
Carrion stars charnel planets carcass elements
Corpse the universe tee-hee finger-in-the-mouth hop
over its long long dead Nor
From thy nimbled matted spastic eye
exhaust deluges of celestial ghouls
From thy appellational womb
spew birth-gusts of of great worms
Rip open your belly Bomb
from your belly outflock vulturic salutations
Battle forth your spangled hyena finger stumps
along the brink of Paradise
O Bomb O final Pied Piper
both sun and firefly behind your shock waltz
God abandoned mock-nude
beneath His thin false-talc’s apocalypse
He cannot hear thy flute’s
happy-the-day profanations
He is spilled deaf into the Silencer’s warty ear
His Kingdom an eternity of crude wax
Clogged clarions untrumpet Him
Sealed angels unsing Him
A thunderless God A dead God
O Bomb thy BOOM His tomb
That I lean forward on a desk of science
an astrologer dabbling in dragon prose
half-smart about wars bombs especially bombs
That I am unable to hate what is necessary to love
That I can’t exist in a world that consents
a child in a park a man dying in an electric-chair
That I am able to laugh at all things
all that I know and do not know thus to conceal my pain
That I say I am a poet and therefore love all man
knowing my words to be the acquainted prophecy of all men
and my unwords no less an acquaintanceship
That I am manifold
a man pursuing the big lies of gold
or a poet roaming in bright ashes
or that which I imagine myself to be
a shark-toothed sleep a man-eater of dreams
I need not then be all-smart about bombs
Happily so for if I felt bombs were caterpillars
I’d doubt not they’d become butterflies
There is a hell for bombs
They’re there I see them there
They sit in bits and sing songs
mostly German songs
And two very long American songs
and they wish there were more songs
especially Russian and Chinese songs
and some more very long American songs
Poor little Bomb that’ll never be
an Eskimo song I love thee
I want to put a lollipop
in thy furcal mouth
a wig of Goldilocks on thy baldy bean
and have you skip with me Hansel and Gretel
along the Hollywoodian screen
O Bomb in which all lovely things
moral and physical anxiously participate
O fairylike plucked from the
grandest universe tree
O piece of heaven which gives
both mountain and anthill a sun
I am standing before your fantastic lily door
I bring you Midgardian roses Arcadian musk
Reputed cosmetics from the girls of heaven
Welcome me fear not thy opened door
nor thy cold ghost’s grey memory
nor the pimps of indefinite weather
their cruel terrestial thaw
Oppenheimer is seated
in the dark pocket of Light
Fermi is dry in Death’s Mozambique
Einstein his mythmouth
a barnacled wreath on the moon-squid’s head
Let me in Bomb rise from that pregnant-rat corner
nor fear the raised-broom nations of the world
O Bomb I love you
I want to kiss your clank eat your boom
You are a paean an acme of scream
a lyric hat of Mister Thunder
O resound thy tanky knees
BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns
BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM
nights ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM
BOOM BOOM ye winds ye clouds ye rains
Go BANG ye lakes ye oceans BING
Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM
Ubangi BOOM orangutang
BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon
the tail the fin the wing
Yes Yes into our midst a bomb will fall
Flowers will leap in joy their roots aching
Fields will kneel proud beneath the halleluyahs of the wind
Pinkbombs will blossom Elkbombs will perk their ears
Ah many a bomb that day will awe the bird a gentle look
Yet not enough to say a bomb will fall
or even contend celestial fire goes out
Know that the earth will madonna the Bomb
that in the hearts of men to come more bombs will be born
magisterial bombs wrapped in ermine all beautiful
and they’ll sit plunk on earth’s grumpy empires
fierce with moustaches of gold.

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