Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Oscar Peterson - In The Black Forest

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Oscar Peterson's contract with Verve ran out in 1964 and he left the company. He signed with Limelight, a new subsidiary of Mercury that would prove to be desultory and ineffectual and eventually was closed down. The Limelight albums are not rated among his best, although one is notable as his first substantial venture as a composer. This was The Canadiana Suite which the editorial staff at JazzProfiles covered in a previous feature.

I had been a long-time admirer of Oscar and his prodigious technique, but frankly, he put out so many LP’s during his association with Norman Granz’s Verve label that I began to hear a certain sameness in his playing despite the thematic context.

In a way, I had the feeling that Oscar was a victim of his own success and I began to view him as a musician who had stopped growing as an artist.

The best description of Oscar’s plight was contained in a piece that appeared in The Times on London, May 11, 1970, in which Max Harrison wrote that, after the Carnegie Hall concert of 1949, “in terms of fame and fortune he never looked back: he toured the world and made far too many LPs. Indeed, musically he seemed never to look forward. He traded in the dullest sort of virtuosity - keyboard mobility as an end in itself, the effect frantic but uncommitted. That was sufficient to enthral an international audience, yet gradually the cognoscenti gave Peterson up, and I recall describing him, in Jazz Monthly a decade ago, as 'the biggest bore in jazz.'”

And yet, in the late 1960s, I had a number of piano playing friends who assured me that Oscar was really a different pianist than the one who was making LP’s by the fistful for Norman Granz and that what he really had to offer was being put on display in a series of six recordings that he made for the MPS label which was based in Germany one of which was entitled - The Way I Really Play! [The exclamation point is mine.]

I sought out these LP’s and after listening to them, it didn’t take me long to agree that there was indeed another Oscar Peterson, one who seemed to perform differently when he was doing so - Exclusively For My Friends - which is the title of the 4 CD set of the MPS albums that was issued by Verve in 1992 [314 513 830-2]

Gene Lees describes the background of how this music came about and explains the circumstances that helped create a startlingly different Oscar Peterson than the one that had been “mailing it in” at the end of his Verve relationship with Norman Granz [Granz had sold the label to MGM in 1962].

“For some time Oscar had been playing a series of private parties for a German millionaire. They would eventuate in some of the most acclaimed albums of his career - indeed, Richard Palmer would write, "some of the most remarkable recordings in jazz history." These included his first important solo albums.

Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's grandfather was a small businessman named Hermann Schwer, who manufactured bicycle bells in the Black Forest - Schwarzwald, in German - in the late nineteenth century. During the pioneering days of radio broadcasting, he began manufacturing receivers. The business grew.

Schwer had no sons to whom he could leave his business. He had only a daughter, Gretl, and she disappointed him when she married. She chose a musician, a symphony conductor named Brunner, who had been a classmate and friend of Herbert von Karajan. Brunner lived just long enough to father two sons, Hans Georg, born a little less than two years after Oscar Peterson, on July 21,1927, and Herman, who arrived two years later. His widow married a career army officer named Ernst Scherb.

Schwer's company was SABA, the acronym of a much longer name. Its factories were in the lovely little Schwarzwald city of Villingen, not far from the Swiss border. The surrounding folded hills are covered with steep-sloping farms and deep pine forests. In the 19308, SABA patented an automatic tuning device that locks a radio to a frequency, eliminating drift. It is still in use, though the patent has long since expired. SABA grew to be a major manufacturer of radio receivers. When World War Two arrived, the company was impressed into military manufacturing and prospered -until the Allied air forces put the small industries of Villingen, SABA among them, on their target list. They destroyed the SABA facilities.

With the defeat of Germany in 1945, Villingen fell into the French zone of occupation. The French commandant appropriated the finest home in the community for himself- the Brunner-Schwer house built by the grandfather and standing next to the ruined SABA works. The teen-aged boys, Hans Georg and Herman, and Gretl, their mother, were moved into the chauffeur's cottage. By then the grandfather was dead, and they, along with their mother, had inherited the estate, its lands, and what was left of SABA.

Stepfather Ernst Scherb, who had been captured on the eastern front, was at last released by the Russians, returned, and took over the reorganization of SABA, which he carried out with military discipline and clarity. In the meantime the French returned the home to its owners. Scherb decided the two boys should be trained to direct the company. Herman was a brilliant student who was chosen to run the business side of SABA. He obtained an MBA degree. Hans Georg was an indifferent student - in the formal sense at least - with a brilliant flair for those technical fields that interested him. He was elected to run the engineering and manufacturing side of the company.

Hans Georg had inherited from his father more than the love of music. Like the father - and like Oscar Peterson - he had the odd gift of absolute pitch. Again like Oscar, he was big, and he liked big things. He began collecting and restoring classic automobiles made by the now-dismantled Maybach company; some of his restorations are worth as much as half a million dollars. And Hans Georg built up, of all strange things, the world's largest collection of air-raid sirens, indicative of his intense interest in sound.

Hans Georg had learned to play accordion, then piano. Herman Brunner-Schwer, an enthusiastic soccer player, liked to associate with athletes; Hans Georg preferred the company of musicians and sound engineers. He knew the owner of the Berlin company that manufactured the excellent Neumann microphones, and people at Telefunken, as well as the manufacturers of the most sophisticated loudspeakers and recording equipment. He designed and installed on the third floor of his home at Villingen one of the most advanced recording studios in the world.

An associate put it this way: "Hans Georg loved sounds that matched his personality, full and deep, going down if possible to ten cycles and up to twenty thousand cycles. Commercially, these things were not available, but he was striving to achieve them."

The human ear cannot hear frequencies as low as ten cycles, but the body can feel them. And whereas the ear cannot hear higher than about fifteen thousand cycles - and many people can't hear even that far up the sound spectrum - the upper partials, as they are called, of sounds, which are in the very high frequencies, determine the timbres, the characteristic colours, of instruments.

Brunner-Schwer experimented with his advanced studio by recording German folk musicians from the Schwarzwald. But his deepest musical passion was for American bands of the swing era. Despite Hitler's formal proscription of jazz as "decadent Negroid Jewish music" - many musicians were sent off to concentration camps and eventually gas chambers for playing it - thousands of Germans nursed a secret love for the music and listened to caches of pre-war records or to the BBC from London, on whose signal they could hear Glenn Miller's air force band. Brunner-Schwer was one of these listeners.

In 1962, the Brunner-Schwer brothers began an association with a business consultant named Baldhard G. Falk, who had emigrated to the United States after gaining his doctorate in economics from the Free University in Berlin in 1951 and lived in San Francisco. Falk says the name Baldhard, drawn from Norse mythology and then misspelled on his birth certificate, is almost as odd in German as it is to the ear of the English-speaking, and even his American wife calls him BF.

Falk cleared up a business problem in the United States for SABA and the Brunner-Schwer family, after which he became their American business agent. A tall, fair-haired, humorous Prussian of considerable personal charm, Falk got along well with Hans Georg. For one thing, he too was a jazz fan. Once during the war, he was almost arrested for playing The Lambeth Walk outdoors on a wind-up gramophone. "And that," he said with a chuckle, "wasn't even jazz."

One of Hans Georg's early musical assignments for Falk was to find the American jazz accordionist Art Van Damme, whom Brunner-Schwer, an accordionist, considered one of the greatest players of the instrument in the world, and have him go to Villingen to record.

In the last days of the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen edition of the trio, Oscar was invited to perform in a paid engagement for a small group of Brunner-Schwer's friends. From that point on, he would go to Villingen at least once a year to play under exquisite circumstances for Brunner-Schwer. The audiences were small, no more than twenty or twenty-five persons, and raptly attentive. "They were really only props," Falk said with a smile. "I don't think Hans Georg cared whether they were there or not."

These parties were reminiscent of the nineteenth-century salon gatherings at which Chopin and Liszt were heard to advantage. The Brunner-Schwer house is in the midst of two and a half acres of groomed gardens. Musicians stayed as guests of the family in the home, which has a huge entrance foyer, a sweeping curved stairway, and wooden detailing hand-carved in the last century by Schwarzwald craftsmen. The parties were superbly catered by the staff of the Schwarzwald Hotel Konigsfeld.

Brunner-Schwer was never present except at the start of these recitals. He would first set his microphones, then go up to his recording equipment in a studio under the mansard roof, watching the performance on a television monitor. More perfect circumstances in which to make music would be difficult to imagine, and every musician who ever performed for Brunner-Schwer came away vaguely dazed by the pleasure of the experience. Sometimes there was no party at all: Oscar would sit at the piano in shirt sleeves, as at home, and muse pensively on the instrument while Hans Georg, unseen and for the instant forgotten, captured these reflections on tape.

A friendship developed between Brunner-Schwer and Oscar Peterson, despite the fact that Hans Georg spoke almost no English, although such was the perfection of his ear that the few words he did command were pronounced so well that one was deceived into assuming he spoke it fluently. But Baldhard Falk, when he flew in from San Francisco, or Brunner-Schwer's wife, Marlies, would translate for them. Both Oscar and Hans Georg, Falk points out, were physically big men, and they shared several passions - for jazz, for the piano, for advanced technology, and for sound.

Oscar was fascinated by everything about Brunner-Schwer's equipment and use of it, including the radical (for the time) way he miked a piano. He used, at least in the early days, two microphones, usually Neumanns, placed inside the instrument and so close to the strings that they were almost touching; a much more distant mike placement was usual at the time. Some of the microphones, in fact, were prototypes Brunner-Schwer had borrowed from their inventors before they were even marketed commercially. And the piano itself was superb, a full nine-foot concert grand, a German Steinway. The German-made Steinways were rated much more highly by pianists than the American-made instruments.

Because of the power of his technique, Oscar dislikes pianos with light actions, and the action of Brunner-Schwer's Steinway was crisp and strong. After the salon recitals, when the guests were gone, Oscar and Brunner-Schwer would listen to the tapes, and Oscar would shake his head and tell his wife Sandy and anyone else who was there that no one had ever captured his sound the way Hans Georg did. And it seemed that these tapes were destined to languish unheard by the world, like Gerry Macdonald's tapes of the trio with Herb Ellis.
SABA was by now marketing high-fidelity equipment with capacities that exceeded the quality of available commercial recordings.

Hans Georg had gone into the recording business in a limited way, setting up the SABA label, on which he issued his Art Van Damme and other recordings, a total of forty albums sold through equipment dealers in Germany. The Oscar Peterson tapes could not be issued because Oscar was under contract to Limelight, and there was no plan to issue them, although they were far superior to the Limelight albums.

SABA continued to grow throughout the 1960s, finally reaching the point where it had to be refinanced or sold. The Brunner-Schwer family decided to sell and considered offers from several companies. Falk - after long and complex negotiations - finally made a deal with the American company General Telephone and Electronics. GTE acquired SABA but Hans Georg retained the music division, including the inventory of tapes. At this point Hans Georg decided to go fully into the record business, marketing his material through his MPS label - Musik Produktion Schwarzwald. He thought that nothing could announce his entry into the business with as much eclat as the Peterson material. And Oscar's Mercury contract had elapsed.

Falk flew in for Brunner-Schwer's 1968 Oscar Peterson house party. Oscar and Hans Georg listened to hours of the tapes they had accumulated, selecting not the best of the material but the best that was not covered by the Mercury contract. Recording contracts specify that the artist cannot re-record material for a certain period, usually five years. None of the tunes recorded for Limelight could be issued in an MPS version. Oscar called Norman Granz to discuss possible release of the material by MPS. Falk, whose fluent English was one of his important business assets to Brunner-Schwer, spoke to Granz, who named a price to which Hans Georg agreed, and, that being done, Granz sent them a contract.

"It was the shortest contract I have ever seen," Falk said. "Only a page and a half long. It was a world-wide contract for release of four albums by Oscar, for a lump sum and royalties. So MPS started with that, those four albums. Hans Georg got his money from GTE for SABA and started investing heavily in music and hiring salesmen. It was at that time that we met you in New York." So it was. Oscar returned from West Germany in 1968 with test pressings of the first albums. Falk and Hans Georg flew to New York. Oscar called me. Given his developed skill at hiding his emotions, I was surprised at the enthusiasm in his voice.

Oscar had told me on several occasions that his best playing had been done in private. I had heard him play with a wonderful muted pensiveness, and nothing on record - even the London House records themselves - equaled what I used to hear in the late-night sets at the London House.

So when Oscar told me that he believed these German recordings were the best he had ever made, my eyebrows rose. He said he wanted me to write liner notes for at least two of the albums, both containing only solo performances. For now, he wanted me to meet the company's owner and his consultant in the United States. "The owner," he said, "is Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, and his associate is - you're not gonna believe this name - Baldhard G. Falk." In the argot of jazz, Baldhard is slightly salacious.

I met Oscar, Brunner-Schwer, and Falk for lunch at the Carlisle Hotel, after which Hans Georg and BF, as I was learning to call him, repaired to my apartment to listen to the pressings. I remember being astonished by the recordings. I told Oscar, "This is the way you really play," and one of the albums was titled The Way I Really Play. In the days after that, I played the albums for various jazz musicians, who agreed that these were the best Peterson recordings they had heard. By then Oscar had left New York to tell interviewers in various places that he thought the MPS recordings were his best.

And critics were soon agreeing with him, including some who had been among his skeptical listeners. In The Times of London, May 11, 1970, Max Harrison wrote that, after the Carnegie Hall concert of 1949, "in terms of fame and fortune he never looked back: he toured the world and made far too many LPs. Indeed, musically he seemed never to look forward. He traded in the dullest sort of virtuosity - keyboard mobility as an end in itself, the effect frantic but uncommitted. That was sufficient to enthral an international audience, yet gradually the cognoscenti gave Peterson up, and I recall describing him, in Jazz Monthly a decade ago, as 'the biggest bore in jazz.' Always there were a few people, chiefly jazz pianists, who stubbornly maintained that in private he played in a manner which flatly contradicted his public image, but evidence was lacking and we never believed them.

"Peterson's apparent satisfaction with his easy successes confirmed such incredulity, yet between 1963 and 1968, when pausing from his travels, he was recording, almost secretly, at Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's Villingen studio in the Black Forest. As never before, Peterson had sole charge of repertoire, tape-editing, etc., and many performances accumulated over those years were rejected. The survivors amount to about 170 minutes' jazz, however, and show him in so new a light as to compel reassessment. Earlier, irrespective of his material's character, Peterson strung together quite mechanical pianistic devices, the detritus, it sounded, of a thousand half-hearted improvisations, but here, as, say, the compact exploration of Perdido shows, spontaneity is balanced with the fruits of long consideration. These 26 treatments last from two minutes to over a quarter of an hour and always the length feels exactly appropriate. They are, in fact, substantially different one from another, and as the contrast between Little Girl Blue's velvety quiet and the bouncing gaiety encapsulated in Lulu’s Back in Town proves, the range of expression is wider than on all Peterson's other discs together....

"To hear Peterson's I'm in the Mood for Love pass from sombre opening chords through increasing but always cogent elaboration to its churning double-tempo climax is like watching the speeded-up growth of a natural organism, and the transmutation process whereby so much is drawn from so bad a tune is inexplicable....

"[Oscar Peterson] is, indeed, a conservative, a rare type in this music, but he has learnt one of Tatum's main lessons well, for, as the lithe, bounding phrases of Foggy Day or Sandy's Blues show, in his best moments decoration assumes a functional role and so is no longer decoration, ornament becomes integral to the processes of development."

Two years later, when My Favorite Instrument - one of the two solo albums for which I had written the notes - came out in England, Harrison wrote in Jazz Monthly, "It is a luxury to be able to indulge in a categorical statement for once, and to assert that this is the best record Peterson ever made. Of course, the sleeve note gets too excited and says he is better than Tatum" - the barb's aimed at me - "although even an offhand comparison between this version of Someone to Watch Over Me, described as a tribute to the older man, with the master's own performance of this piece reveals a considerable difference in executive refinement, and further listening uncovers the more concise yet more subtle structure of Tatum's reading. Such claims on Peterson's behalf are futile, but it is important to define just what his musical and pianistic achievements are.

"He is not original. Unlike, say, a James P. Johnson or a Cecil Taylor, there is very little in his music that can be isolated as being his alone. Peterson's strongest suit is his knowledge. He has learnt every procedure that has occurred in piano jazz up to his time and uses them in his own way. Put something in a new context and it can take on a fresh meaning: what is personal in [these] performances is not the musical and pianistic elements of which they consist but the particular way these are put together. Peterson's other point, obviously, is a technique which, unlike the techniques of most jazz pianists, has been systematically developed in all areas. This accounts not only for the feeling of completeness which all these improvisations convey despite their diversity of musical character, but also for his powers as a soloist: what Peterson does share with Tatum is that, contrary to popular superstition, he has no need of bassist or drummer. This is confirmed by the above program's freedom from that mechanical aspect which makes so many of his trio performances infuriating, and this in turn is underlined by such factors as that each track seems exactly the right length - two minutes is just right for Lulu, as are six for Little Girl Blue. And from none of the editions of his trio have we often encountered, say, the mood of wistfulness that sounds through Bye Bye, Blackbird or the lyricism of I Should Care.

"That Peterson's stance is essentially retrospective is shown by such things as the music's rhythmic vocabulary, as on Perdido. But notice that he displays a far better sense of dynamics here than we should ever suspect from his trio recordings, and that he makes a use of the bottom register superior to that of almost any other jazz pianist. The integration of bravura into the overall shape of Body and Soul is fine, too, even if it lacks the continuity which (no matter how often he is accused of not having it) is one of Tatum's most conspicuous qualities. Hear also the internal balance of the chords in Who?, the depth and warmth of tone - all taken for granted by non-pianistic listeners but none of them easy to achieve. Perhaps Little Girl Blue is Peterson's best recorded performance: its velvety quiet follows most tellingly on Lulu’s brief yet bouncing gaiety, and while nobody would claim for him the depth of Powell or Yancey, this music is more than merely pensive.

"Here, I am sure, is the one Peterson LP that should be in every collection."

The first four MPS albums were not only a critical success, they sold well in Europe, particularly West Germany.

Brunner-Schwer made two more albums with Oscar and then suggested a more formal and planned contractual arrangement. In view of the expansion of MPS, Norman Granz negotiated a contract calling for higher fees. And he suggested that for the first album, Oscar be recorded with a large orchestra, including strings. Oscar had made only one other album of that kind, a somewhat abortive and forgotten Verve recording with Nelson Riddle. Granz suggested that the arranger be Claus Ogerman, and Hans Georg immediately agreed. Ogerman - like Falk a Prussian by birth - was a far different arranger from Riddle. A former jazz pianist himself, he had revealed, in albums made for Creed Taylor at Verve after Granz sold it, deep sensitivity for soloists in albums with Bill Evans and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ogerman had a distinctive gift for writing string arrangements of a curiously austere lyricism that somehow enhanced but did not interfere with the featured player. Granz suggested that the album be made in New York, and since Ogerman then lived there, it was a sensible arrangement, to which Brunner-Schwer agreed.

The session was set for the A&R recording studio, one of the best and best-known in New York. Oscar at that time was a contracted Baldwin artist. In exchange for the endorsement of their instruments by major artists, which they are able to use in their advertising, piano companies provide instruments on command for the engagements of their contracted artists in various locations. Steinway was noted for its indifference to endorsements; Baldwin sought them sedulously. And when Oscar arrived in a city, he had only to pick out a Baldwin he liked and the company would send him the instrument.

But the concert grand Baldwin he chose for the album with Ogerman for some reason could not be used, and Oscar confronted a studio piano he found inadequate - "I don't like the box," as he put it. He declined to record on it. Brunner-Schwer faced a dilemma. He had committed substantial funds to this recording, including Ogerman's arranging and conducting fees, the cost of the A&R studio, and the salaries of the musicians who sat there waiting, and would be paid whether they played or not. He made a decision: to record the orchestra now and to overdub Oscar's part in Villingen on the piano Oscar liked. Oscar instantly agreed, the session proceeded, and he completed the album later in Villingen. The album, Motions and Emotions, is a lovely piece of work. It would be described by some jazz critics as a pop album, but the definition is irrelevant. Oscar plays an extended embellishment of Jobim's Wave that is breath-taking.

Oscar made in all fifteen albums for MPS. The concepts for them were planned and prepared, often in conversations with Brunner-Schwer. One of them was a quartet album with Bob Durham on drums' and Sam Jones on bass - and guitarist Herb Ellis. It was called Hello, Herbie, the first words Oscar said when his old friend arrived from California for the sessions. Another was an album called In Tune, with the brilliant vocal group known as The Singers Unlimited, which Oscar had brought to the attention of Brunner-Schwer. Led by Gene Puerling, the group's arranger, and with the young Chicago studio singer Bonnie Herman as the lead voice, the group made elaborate orchestrational albums by complex overdubbing of the four voices. Bonnie Herman vividly remembers the sessions. By then Brunner-Schwer had built a new studio on the property, installing therein a Boesendorfer Imperial concert grand piano. It was there, in fact, that Oscar became familiar with the Boesendorfer, which instrument he would embrace. "You could look out the window when you were recording," Bonnie said. "You'd see all the gardeners working, and the paths leading from the main house, lined with roses. And every morning there was the smell of fresh-ground coffee. Marlies, Hans Georg's wife, would make us fresh-ground coffee."

The last recording for Brunner-Schwer, a trio album with Niels-Henning 0rsted Pedersen on bass, was made in the spring of 1972. Norman Granz had returned actively to the record business, with the Pablo label - named for Picasso - in Beverly Hills. Oscar became a contracted Pablo artist, doing all his recording from then until 1986 for that company.

Oscar told the French writer Francois Postif in an interview published in Le Jazz Hot in April 1973, "I've never counted the number of albums that have come out under my name or under that of my trio, but I think it has to be about 60 now. And I made lots of albums with other artists, like Dizzy and Roy. But I think the best album I've ever recorded was the first solo album for MPS." He was referring to My Favorite Instrument. "Perhaps it was because it was the first album where I was completely free, and in which I did what I felt like. I chose the tempos, the keys I wanted to play in, if I wanted to change keys in the middle of a tune, there was no problem, because I was alone at the piano, alone with no one to give me problems."

It is a wistful statement. "Wistful" is the word his nemesis, Max Harrison, used to describe his performance of Bye-Bye Blackbird in the Villingen recordings. Harrison said of the first Schwarzwald albums: "It would be ridiculous to sound a valedictory note on a man of 45, yet it is through such music that Peterson will be remembered."

The great improvisers of the past, Chopin and Liszt among them, had only one way to leave their music for posterity: to write it down on paper. But the jazz improviser can leave his actual performances, and his recordings are his legacy. It is not coincidence that jazz evolved coeval with the development of recording technology.

Those MPS recordings, the sound quality of which was the state of the art at the time, are so important a part of the Peterson body of work that one is forced to ask, what happened there in the Schwarzwald?

For one thing, the man who once made ten albums in a week in Chicago recorded only fifteen albums in Villingen in eleven years, and mostly under ideal conditions.

Oscar Peterson is quite possibly the bravest man I have ever known. Challenge him, and he will respond. If it's a drunk in the London House or the Hong Kong bar who is distracting him, he will simply put on the pressure until he has conquered both the distraction and the distractor. If bravura display is all that will reach the back of a huge concert hall, that will be what he does. He simply will not surrender.

But at Villingen, with the roses in the garden and the smell of coffee in the morning, he had no need to command or demand respect: he already had it, had indeed the adoration of the people around him.

Jack Batten described one of Oscar's appearances in Toronto. "Peterson," he wrote in Maclean's (April 17, 1965), "was introduced to the Massey Hall audience with a lavish encomium by a local disc jockey, and the crowd - the house had been sold out two days earlier - hailed him long and vigorously as he walked onstage, a huge coffee-colored man of bearish contour, resplendent in a modish jet tuxedo and laceless patent-leather shoes. His hands and wrists dazzled with gold - gold cufflinks, gold wristwatch band, gold identification bracelet, and large beveled gold wedding band on his left hand."

The identification bracelet was the one Fred Astaire had given him.

What happened at Villingen?

Nothing had to be conquered. The gold, as it were, came off, the patent-leather shoes were slipped aside. There in the Black Forest the shy and sensitive boy from Montreal High School sat down at a Steinway and played Bye-Bye Blackbird.”

The following video features Oscar along with Sam Jones on bass and Bobby Durham on drums performing a rather incredible version of Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream. To my ears, this is a side of Oscar that was seldom heard up to the time of the MPS LP’s [c. 1965-1972] and rarely heard after their issuance when Oscar was again returned to recording for Norman Granz after he formed Pablo Records.

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