Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jazz At The Razz

PROFILE: Jazz at the Razz…Rick Cranston, Art Ellefson, Dick Smith and Steve Smith, three Sundays a month at Raspberry's Jazz Cafe.

Late one Sunday afternoon I left Raspberry’s Jazz CafĂ© just as Gabriola Island was beginning to experience its first real spring weather. There was a fresh breeze, and the steps of the Gabriolans in the village seemed lighter as they began to feel the season, to once again take deep breaths and to see in colour. I could still hear the jazz riffs as I rounded the boardwalk heading to my vehicle. It struck me how fortunate I was to have my senses raised on this fine day by the beauty and elegance of the sounds of Rick Cranston, Art Ellefson, Dick Smith and Steve Smith (no relation) as they riffed and rolled through jazz standards which echoed in the village square, as one poet says, “like the faint exquisite music of a dream.”.

As a group they play three Sundays each month at Raspberry’s. They play for the pleasure of making the music, earning enough (some days) from the tip jar to pay for refreshments and libation. I was fortunate to be able to sit down with the band individually for a talk about how it came to pass that they met up and began to make these Sunday afternoons a regular part of their lives.

I decided to approach each interview as a fresh slate without prior research so that the band members could set the direction and tell their own story. Details of time and place and how the band came together may vary from teller to teller, but the joy is in the story, and as I spoke with each member I could feel the richness of experience it has brought to each of them.


Rick Cranston is a well know visual artist on Gabriola, and his beautiful carvings can be seen displayed in virtually every major building on the island. I asked Rick if music was also been part of his artistic bent.

“Growing up I was exposed to the music in my parent’s home and in movies after the war which were full of jazz music. My parents listened to Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and others. I absorbed it by feel.”

This exposure steeped Rick in the rich nightclub music of the era. In his late teens he and his friends would cross the border from his native Ontario to New York where they could go to lounges with bands, mood lighting, and dance floors. Rick remembers those experiences with enthusiasm.

But it was serendipity, while helping Ken Capon (a well-known local bass player) to work up a song for the island choir, which then prompted Ken to ask Rick to try to sing a jazz tune. And so, after many years, all of that absorbed feeling for the nuances of jazz music turned into actual expression in song.

“We ended up learning and working up Autumn Leaves, Fly Me To The Moon, and Funny Valentine and others. Once we started we practiced every evening for a month.”

From this beginning, he and Ken got together with Arlene Carson, and Jenna Flor as a rehearsal band.

“This was approximately ten years ago.” says Rick.

“We had that band together for about three years. We began to play at Raspberry’s and Ken had booked us in for ten or twelve weeks. That was the very first gig that I ever did in front of people as a singer.”

Rick says Raspberry's formal opening felt like a huge event. This was owner Roger Christie's opening weekend in the original location a few doors down from the present one in the Folklife Village,

“It was in September and it was jammed with people who were out in the parking lot in a cordoned off a area, There was wine, and Roger served up great food. Other bands played as well, not just us, and it went on for a full three days,”

This band existed in different incarnations with different players for several years. The line-up then changed and became primarily John Capon, Ken Capon and Rick, occasionally adding Dick Smith who had moved to Gabriola. Rick says there was a fundamental shift when Dick Smith came and added his musical expertise to the mix. Then Steve Smith arrived in Nanaimo.

“John Capon had known Steve from the music business in Toronto and invited Steve to come and sit in with the band at a regular brunch gig they were playing at the Silva Bay Pub and Restaurant. John had brought his horn and asked Steve to play piano. After that, as things moved and changed, Steve, Dick and Rick began to do some gigs together. It remained primarily this way with various others moving in and out of the group, but the core remained. “

Knowing some of the history from others and listening to Rick’s own story, it struck me as we spoke that on some level he has acted as a catalyst, though he is quick not to characterize things this way.

I pointed out that he was there as these bands began and that he is still involved. It seems, to this writer at least, that there is something about Rick’s energy, and his enthusiasm for art and artists in general, that must have played at least some role in the gathering of these artistic forces.

With humility Rick denies a major organizing role and states that he feels, “fortunate to even be part of playing with these guys because the feeling is so fantastic. And fortunate that they like having me as vocalist. It is incredible and gets better and better and better as time goes by.”

I asked Rick how playing at this level has affected his own investigation into the world of jazz music. He explains that he is constantly learning new material and discovering new ways to phrase and express himself.

“My songbook has gotten huge. Steve and Dick insist on a disciplined approach to learning the material before improvising is introduced. In the beginning, I would just concentrate on getting through the songs, but this experience has given me confidence and I am now inventing my own phrasing. It is just coming out of me spontaneously.”

More on Rick Cranston and his art can be found on the net at:


Art Ellefson began as a youngster taking the requisite piano lessons, but got “bored with it” he says. Later he played euphonium in a military band, and that in turn led to playing the sax in a local dance band in Swift Current Saskatchewan. The band’s tenor sax player left town and Art took his place. With that experience he was hooked on jazz, and he became inspired to follow that sound.

After high school, Art went to Edmonton and Sylvan Lake and then east for a bit, to Toronto, where he studied harmony and took some private sax lessons. While in Toronto Art read ads on the back of Melody Maker, the music magazine, advertising that musicians were needed in England. At age 20, he and a trumpet player friend took the leap and went to seek work in Great Britain. They both found work and stayed.

“Being from North America they thought I knew what I was doing” Art says with a smile. “But I was really just a beginner. I got gigs in clubs and went on the road with various bands doing dances and concerts. It was mostly commercial music but was good training…the school of hard knocks.”

“University didn’t ever appeal to me,” says Art.. “The best way for me to learn was by just getting out there and doing it.”

He toured throughout the fifties in Britain, but when rock ‘n’ roll came in, Art concentrated on studio work. He became a sought-after player for recording sessions of singers and movies of the day.

“I wasn’t really into pushing myself or taking producers to tea so to speak, I waited for the phone to ring. I think I was just very lucky, fortunate.”

Reluctantly Art talks about some sessions he did for the Beatles. He was in on the experiments of over-dubbing in the sixties. It is rumoured that some of his work ended up on the White Album, though Art does not like to discuss this either. He worked often at the Abbey Road studios where many artists recorded.

“In our circles (jazz) you didn’t broadcast that you worked in commercial music.”

“But I would say that in the studios and elsewhere 95 per cent of what you did was nothing to write home about, and the other 5 per cent scared the hell out of you. The London Symphony for instance” says Art, “And other symphony orchestras when they would need a saxophone. Some of the modern composers were really difficult, and saxophone to me is not really a classical instrument. A much different sound is sought in the classical world than in the jazz world.”

Art considers his instrument to be much more a jazz instrument intrinsically. When I first heard him play I was struck by how he actually “spoke” with the saxophone. I asked him when he had a sense of that himself.

“At first I emulated a lot of people and eventually I tried to find my own style which is really difficult. Some are born with their own style and have it naturally, while others have to adapt and learn to express themselves. Original people are naturals, it’s just there. Sometimes something of yourself comes out, not thinking about it, it just comes out.”

“It took me a long time before I figured I had something to say…I was almost 40 by then. I thought to myself, 'I have a vague idea of what I’m doing.' It is very hard to explain and express verbally. There were so many good players there in Britain. You have to know what you are doing, know your harmony, and hope for the best every day.”

“Sometimes there were good days.” he laughed.

I asked Art what he listened to himself.

“Mostly classical. I like the modern composers Bartok, Janacek, but also Bach. I am more into tonal music”. says Art.

He references Stockhausen and says some of the more experimental music he likes but he doesn’t think that way himself. “I like Debussy a lot.”

When I asked Art if he had favourites on his own instrument he replied:

“There are probably a hundred tenor players who at one time have pleased me. I don’t have a favourite. There are so many good players I’ve listened to. I have gotten into a guy named Eric Dolphy who is the most far out guy you ever want to hear in your life, He is dead now, but this guy had energy!” Art says with emphasis. “He and Ornette Coleman, but I really liked Dolphy the best. Mad, he was absolutely mad. But I like a lot of stuff…Basie. I was brought up on Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster,…I could go on and on and on…all tenor players.”

Art returned from England in 1974 when the music got thin, not wanting to work a day time job there. He had just won a battle with the BBC over being let go wrongfully. He won the case and stayed on, but the experience was unpleasant, and he really wanted to get away from the politics of the business. Art left for Bermuda where he stayed for 5 years in the seventies. He muses that Artie Shaw in his autobiography refers to the music business as “that dung hill”. Art philosophizes that in the business there are too many people interested in making money, not music.

"Yet these people control the business. They don’t care about music. As far as they are concerned, if it makes money, it's good music no matter what it sounds like.”

Art and I chuckled at that great quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

After Bermuda, Art says he looked at an Atlas to decide where to go. He wanted to be near a big city for music, but he wished to raise his son in a small town. He settled on Barrie, Ontario, north of Toronto.

“I got with a local trio and we played a lot in Muskoka. In 1980, when the recession hit, we went down to 2 or 3 gigs a week and that’s when I moved to 88. The music that was happening then, both live and in sessions, I just didn’t feel like it was me. I took a course in instrument repair and I began to take playing jobs with my son Lee a couple times a week.”

They did quite a few recordings together while living in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. They also organized music in a Courtenay club through the nineties.

“I worked in a music store for a guy whose attitude I really liked. We made a few records with guys from Vancouver and managed to keep the wolf from the door.”

Art’s son Lee, who teaches guitar at the University, came down from Courtenay to the university and Art followed in 2008. He had not played at that point for 3 years. He says he didn’t miss it, but then when he came down here he heard Steve Smith on the piano.

“I thought, ‘Jeez I gotta play with this guy.’ Then I was really prompted to want to play again when I heard he and Dick and Rick and I went out and got a horn!”

Though that sounds simple enough, later Steve Smith explains with glee the dancing and circling that he and Art did before they finally played together.

Two masters checking each other out. A dance for which all on Gabriola can be grateful.

For a complete discography and more biographical information on Art Ellefson visit:


I began by asking Dick Smith, alto sax player in the band, when it was he made the decision that music was what he wanted to do with his life.

“Well, I never made a decision like that, but I always liked music and the first music that really bowled me over was the music of Chopin. Being a romantic little kid, that music just swept me away. And so I wanted to learn to play it. I was also very interested in pop music in the era of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and others.”

“There was a saxophone player I heard, and Art really laughs at this because he knew about this guy, a guy named Freddie Gardner. He was an Englishman who had a very sweet, saccharine tone. But he was a beautiful player and it really knocked me out when I heard that, although you couldn’t call it jazz music really….it was a very romantic saxophone styling, He did improvise a little bit around the melody which I liked. And so I wanted to play the saxophone.”

(You can hear Freddie Gardner on YouTube)

Early in life Dick was given piano lessons which got him into the Chopin.

“But also I heard George Shearing and I really liked that. That was called progressive jazz…a kind of a funny term that people threw around. So I got the George Shearing books…I still have a couple of them and played out of them…and I learned a lot of theory from those books, a lot of harmonic stuff.”

“The first gig I had was with the band teacher at the high school I was going to. Our school band had clarinet, two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombone and a drum…that was it, and it sounded horrible. But the teacher took me to a gig and I played at it and he gave me ten bucks! So that really kind of turned me on.”

“I am reminded of something Gore Vidal said when someone paid him to write something. He was blown away by the idea that someone gave him money for something he was going to do anyway.” Dick chuckles.

“I thought it was a great idea to play, but really I just gravitated to it. And it was a real kick to get paid for playing, but at no time did I sit down and decide to myself ‘I am going to pursue this.’” He laughs and says, “It just sort of crept up when I was thinking of something else.”

“So (after High School) at that time I had an office job in Victoria working in the IBM section of the Government. Computers came in and that was right around the time I quit. The thing I told my family was that I wanted to go to university so they wouldn’t freak out that I quit my job. And so, subsequently, I took a year of university in the music programme and you either studied band teaching or performance and I learned right then that I was not going to be a band teacher.”

“The next year, (Dick pauses here to say that he forgets the exact chronology) I was working in an East End club. I met this fellow (Gary) who worked at a club called the New Delhi and it was owned by an East Indian guy. I worked there on and off for quite some time. The other guys in band, however, quit the club to go on the road and so I went to Berkeley. I was in Boston for about nine months.”

“After that I came back and went to UBC again until Gary came off the road and phoned me to play at the Delhi again and so I did. One thing or the other had to go…either the gig or university… and I quit university. So I suppose if there was any real decision about anything that that was it…that I would rather play. And we had a good band. I was fortunate that the guys that I was playing with were good players."

“So I was introduced to Rhythm and Blues music and fell in love with that stuff, on the juke box, and we played that kind of music, and we played for a lot of acts that mostly came from the States. They were strippers, singers, and dancers and we backed up the shows. Some were good, some not so good, but it was all great experience and fun. So I did that for a number of years.”

"I also went to Toronto and stayed there for the obligatory nine months.” (We had joked earlier about how Dick’s life seemed to have been measured out in nine month intervals.)

“I came back to Vancouver and was broke and I worked in a hardware store for a while. Then this guy phoned me up and he said: ‘I’m opening up a strip joint downtown and I was wondering if you want to put a band together?'”

“I said 'OK, what kind of a place?'”

“'A strip joint, he said, “Right down on Granville Street and you’ll have to do the noon show and the evening show.'”

“I wondered who would go to strip show at noon hour. But there were line-ups down the block…I couldn’t believe it! In those days the girls took everything off and so I guess I did that for around nine months and got myself into some upheaval (Dick intimates it may have been with one of the entertainers) and went back to Toronto.”

“One of the nine month stints was in Halifax. I really fell in love with Nova Scotia. I conceived this idea that I wanted to stay there and be a school teacher. So I jumped on my bike and I peddled from Halifax to Truro (about 94 Km) which is where the Normal School was, the school that prepared you to be a teacher. I was about a week late for getting that together…and I could maybe still be there teaching Grade four except for that!” (Laughter)

“When I came back to Vancouver after that I used to hang out in a club called the Classical Joint. I met a woman and got married.”

“I did a lot of solo work as a piano player, a restaurant piano player. The phone wasn’t ringing for saxophone, so I dressed up in suit and went into every restaurant to get hired as a piano player and one guy didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. I kept going back, and finally he hired me and I stayed with him for a number of years. He would open up a new restaurant somewhere else and he would send me out there to warm the place up. We had quite a nice relationship.”

“But somewhere along the line a friend of mine took me sailing and we sailed into Silva Bay, I flipped, and so I bought the boat off him and the next time I came over here,” Dick chortles, “I was the captain.”

“And so I started driving my truck over here, the marriage had split up and my ex and I sold our house and I got a real estate person here to find me a house. I thought Gabriola was great because it was just a stone’s throw from Nanaimo. I thought I would get lots of gigs in Nanaimo, which never came to pass, but I ended up here and have been here for 10 or 11 years."

"I had known John Capon before. He was here and had quite a few gigs at the time and I found that encouraging. I was glad to be here and I ran across Rick (Cranston) through John Capon and Rick and I used to do some gigs, piano and vocal. We did gigs with John and his brother Ken on bass.”

“But I started getting a fair number of gigs in Victoria, I fell in love with the place again, so I thought I would go and live there. This was about two and a half years ago. I stayed there a maybe a year and three months. I did some teaching on Saltspring and in Langford and played some gigs. I liked teaching one-on-one (as opposed to band teaching) and it turns out that I was good at it.”

“When I came back from Victoria Steve Smith had moved here. Rick told me about this piano player, and we met up and played together at my friend’s place on Mudge (Island). Some trees were down and she needed a work detail to go and help her do some wood. So we got some people, and Steve and his wife Barb came, and we did a bunch of work. I had brought my saxophone for some unknown reason, so we played together and it blew my mind. I thought: ‘What are the chances of a guy like that moving to Gabriola?’ And then, shortly thereafter, Art moved here!”

“When Art had moved here there was no way he was going to play again. He had sold his tenor saxophone and that was it. And then he saw us playing and he got this old alto somewhere and he and Saburo (Saburo Murata, well-known Gabriolan sax player) were playing duets together, just for fun. And so Steve and I and Rick were playing here (at Raspberry’s) and Art used to come down and we asked him to come and play.”

“Sometimes it sounds like Art and I went to the same school or something. We read each other’s mind …it gets quite interesting and good. So we couldn’t turn that down. As soon as we heard the possibilities there was no problem with that plan (of Art joining the group). That’s my recollection.”

“I love to play for people, but I don’t like to rehearse much. Our rehearsals are the most perfunctory thing imaginable. I never really enjoyed musicians just playing for musicians…jam sessions. For the most part I do like to play for people, and I like to play right at them, and I’m delighted if I can think of something really cool and lay it on somebody…it delights me!.

STEVE SMITH – Piano and M.C.

“In terms of mental focus my mind centers on music that is going on, rather than the lyrics. If there are vocals with the music, I can force myself to hear them, but my natural tendency is for the focus to be on what’s accompanying the vocal"

I joked with Steve about the probability that he didn’t gravitate to Bob Dylan. Steve laughed and pointed out that he loved “the Band”.

In Toronto Steve’s bread and butter was the bar scene, the days when live music was in all the clubs. Bands were also hired privately for special occasions like weddings, conventions, Christmas parties.

“You had to be a jack of all trades. That was the thing about the Toronto scene. If you wanted to make a living there you couldn’t be a specialist. You had to take whatever gig came up and do your best at it. And so the guys there tended to be really well rounded.”

“I worked as a free-lance pianist. I’d show up to a gig and not know who was going to be on the gig, but there was a common repertoire of music. Then when things got to be more top 40 oriented, we would clone the hits and use charts. Other gigs, like big band gigs, we would sight-read from a huge book of charts."

“I’m an accompanist I think. I have always accompanied…singers, shows, horn players. And whether it’s lyrics, or it’s music, I tend to accompany what’s going on. I listen to people that I am working with and try and play something that works with what they are doing, whether it is improvised or whether it’s all written out as is the case in a lot of shows.”

I asked Steve if that led him to be a musical director.

“Some several times, absolutely. I musically directed maybe half a dozen shows on my own and maybe a dozen or more, or twenty, where I would work in the band and then take over from the first musical director when he moved on. Doing shows you are accompanying what is going on on the stage. That is part of your role.”

“A musical director once came to me on a gig playing solo piano and he came to me on a Friday he told me he was totally stuck.”

“’If you are available on Monday can you go in and play the Fantasticks for me?’ he asked me.”

“It was the first Broadway show that I had ever done, so I spent Sunday looking at the score and Monday I went in and played the show. I reduced the score, but I did well enough the first show to keep the gig, because I could read. I covered the important stuff which was accompanying the vocalists. That was my first show, and I ended up finishing the run of show.”

“From then on I did Dinner Theatres and there were shows all over the place in those days.”

Steve explains, "There were also jazz gigs to be had at the time. George’s Spaghetti House was in its prime with players like Moe Koffman, Ed Bickert, terry Clark and Don Thomson. Moe Koffman booked that club as well as played there. Moe would work there 1 week a month and hire other bands for a week at a time for the rest of the month. Later Moe became contractor to hire musicians, and he used me for Phantom of the Opera, and Showboat."

“I was a young up-and-comer at the time and got quite a few weeks in there (George’s) and that was terrific experience as it was high pressure. I played once as pianist for Pete Peterson of the Harmonicats. Pete was a phenomenal player on the chromatic harmonica.”

“But then show business became the cash cow for everybody. The studio scene went very quiet. A lot of home studios continued, and a few of the big studios for TV shows, but it was not a real gravy train. The big shows came in with theatres like the Royal Alex, the Pantages and with producers like Livent.”

So Steve finished out his Toronto time as a keyboardist in various shows, sometimes on piano, sometimes on synthesizers or other types of keyboards. He also toured in a full scale production of Showboat in the U.S.

I asked if this kind of intimate playing experience, the kind that happens at Raspberry’s, was something he had done in the past.

“In Toronto what guys would do is they would go to some little restaurant looking for gigs, and they would go and find themselves a gig, and I have never, ever done that. I resisted it. I guess I appreciated my time off (from shows). But here on Gabriola I wanted to play live and I came to Raspberry’s looking for a gig after we had done a Canada Day celebration. I suggested coming in on Sunday’s for a couple of hours. He (Roger Christie, owner of Raspberry’s) was all for it.”

“It has led to a wonderful transformation for me. I have been playing jazz weekly now for 2 years and l've discovered, that much like any activity, regular live experience really helps to build playing strength. One can practice for twenty years at home, but the first time you go out and play a live gig you’ll learn as much as you did in the first ten years at home. Getting out there and doing it is the only way"

"I am a left-handed piano player, which helps my piano playing when playing without a rhythm section (bass and drums). The majority of piano work falls to the right hand, and as I have my own sense of time and like to play a bass line, I decided that I would do the gig without bass and drums."

“I did a couple of weeks with Saburo (see above) and then with Dick. Art came in every week. I didn’t know him at that time. I knew of Art Ellefson because he lived north of Toronto for a while and I had a chance to hear him in Toronto. He came in and was enjoying the music. He was a really, really nice gentleman. I don’t think he had his horns anymore, he had actually sold them, but he used to come and listen. I couldn’t figure it out. He was healthy and everything. I kept saying to myself: ‘How could you ever sell your horns and give it up?’”

“I didn’t ask him why, but I said to him ‘Don’t you think it would be nice to just play a few notes.’”

“He said ‘Oh no I don’t have my wind anymore.’”

“I would counter: ‘Well sometimes I don’t play very much during the day either. I’ll just sit down at the keyboard and get some kind of nice meditative sense and play a few things and just relax and play a few things and I find you know, it makes me happy to play a little bit.’”

Steve explains that then one week Art arrived and said, “You know what? I bought myself a horn!”

“A month went by and he says ‘it might be kind of fun to play a tune.’ I said ‘why don’t you come over we’ll play at my place.’ He said ‘Yeah it might be fun to have a toot, but I’m never going to play in public again!’”

Steve chuckles. “So eventually he actually did come in and play and it has been a real pleasure. It blows me away actually.”

I explained to Steve that the day in the spring I had been so affected by the band was after Art and Dick had played solos. Listening was just like hearing someone speaking in a different language with the full range of expression and telling you what was in his soul.

“And originality” Steve piped up.

Steve talked about jazz.

“There is a force and a creativity about it and it is not lyrical music in a sense, because it’s too fast to sing, but he (Art) is a unique player and has his own way of playing things that is unique to him when he gets going. The expression you used is that it ‘blew you away’ and honest to goodness it blows us away too, that’s really what it is. And to be blown away means to be taken out of yourself where you don’t know where you are. Your imagination is so captured by what somebody is doing…to the point where you should just be probably sitting down because your faculties are being usurped by a greater force. You are being taken away.”

“But to be blown away while being in the role of the accompanist is dangerous. I have to hold myself in reserve. There is a certain amount of me that can’t be blown away because I am holding down a chair there where I have to maintain a jazz structure over which he (the soloist) is performing and playing. So if he blows me away then it’s too bad, but when I notice I am being blown away, then I immediately focus on what I am doing because I want to be there for him. Chances are he is blowing himself away too, and when he (the soloist) finishes whatever that moment of inspiration is, and he doesn’t know where he is, you have to tell him. You have to play something right away that tells him where he is in the tune, just a hint of the melody or something that allows him to say ‘Oh yeah that’s where we are’ and then he can continue on from there and feel the support.”

“I think that I have grown since coming here and working with these guys and have made that discovery. I didn’t know that before (about accompaniment). I mean, I did play weeks at George’s Spaghetti House and maybe it was a little easier when I was younger. But I think even now with the more experience I have had by doing this every week for two years here, that it’s added a layer to what I had before.”

“And Rick. He was one of the driving forces to me coming over to Gabriola. He’s just a natural. He never comes in at the wrong time and always has a sense of where things are and that’s a gift. You can study it all your life, but if you don’t sense where things are naturally….he’s got that happening and it’s effortless working with him.”

Towards the end of our interview Jean Llewellyn of the Gabriola Players stopped by our table to say hello to Steve and he explained:

“That was one of the people from the Gabriola players who uses me to organize music for shows. That’s one of the fun things that I do here. I work a lot here on a volunteer basis but I’m having as much fun as I ever did. The community is really fantastic. I really love it.”

More information on Steve Smith can be found at:

Rick, Art, Dick and Steve can be heard at Raspberry’s 3 Sundays out of each month. Watch Now On Gabriola for shows and times.

Tim Harrison
Oct 6/11

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