“I was never particularly insecure on the instrument, because as I hinted at, I didn’t ever set out to be the ‘best’ guitarist at all and was always aware that there were others that would always be able to do more with the instrument than me. However, I do have my own personal form of competitiveness as a musician, mostly with myself! If anything, I’m a perfectionist and very rarely come away from anything thinking “whoopee do”, because I always want it to be better.”Phil Robson
I first became hip to Jazz Guitarist Phil Robson via his work on Jazz Guitarist/Composer Peter Leitch’s New Life Orchestra and wanted to know more about this wonderful player. In this featured Jazz Guitar Life interview, Phil talks about his Jazz Guitar beginnings, his role as guitarist in the aforementioned Leitch project, his one-time association with the great Barbara Streisand and a whole lot more. An informative and entertaining read! Enjoy 🙂
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JGL: Thank you Phil for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
PR: Certainly, I’m 51. I’m happy to say I’m in good health and despite going a little thin on top, my hair is still hanging in there! I’m originally from Derby in England, but I spent most of my adult life in London and was then living in the NYC vicinity for the 5 years leading up to the pandemic, more specifically I was in Jersey City.
JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator (lift) pitch of who you are musically/professionally?
PR: I’m a guitarist and composer who was always interested in a very diverse spectrum of music, which my bio reflects. I’ve played with a very wide selection of artists ranging from Kenny wheeler, David Liebman to Barbra Streisand as well as forming many projects of my own including various trios, quartets, a trio plus string quartet, a quintet with Mark Turner etc. I was also the guitarist with the BBC big band for ten years which broadened that spectrum even further, as we regularly had guest artists such as Phil woods, Joe Lovano etc, as well as visiting musical directors such as Vince Mendoza, Bob Brookmeyer and many more.
In Europe I’m most known for the work I did with a band called ‘Partisans’ which I co-led with saxophonist Julian Siegel as well as with my playing with my partner Christine Tobin, the great singer/songwriter.
In NYC I’m most known for my collaboration with saxophonist/composer Jed Levy as well as for the multimedia show I co-curated with Christine at the Irish Arts Center NYC called ‘Tobin’s Run on 51’. If people want to know more details, they are welcome to visit www.philrobson.net where there is plenty of information.
JGL: What geographical area do you currently reside in?
PR: I’m currently in County Roscommon in the West of Ireland. It’s a very long story but Christine, my partner is Irish and we had been intending to spend more time here, having inherited a ‘fixer upper’ place in the countryside as a long term plan. When the pandemic began, it became clear how much it would devastate our work, like all musicians. luckily, we were not tied into a long-term rental contract in Jersey City, so it was logical to come here for lots of reasons and we’ve been here since March 2020. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to weather this out (literally at times!) in a beautiful place, which was relatively very safe. It is a sharp contrast to our life in NYC, but I’ve always been attracted to extremes in equal measure, so we basically swapped the skyscrapers for cows! When things open up more, I hope to find a balance between the two as well as tour more extensively in Europe.
JGL: Speaking of COVID, how did you/are you handling the sudden shift from global freedom – relatively speaking – to being locked-down. Were you able to work on a virtual platform like Skype or ZOOM? Do you see a time – hopefully sooner than later – when all will be back to what it was?
PR: I’ll be honest and say I found it very difficult. I initially experienced it as something close to grief and had a real hard time to keep up my practice for the first few months. Luckily there was plenty of stuff we could do to the house and I, like many others, really enjoyed connecting with nature and my surroundings in a new way. We were able to do some pre-recorded videos, other recordings and various bits of online stuff, but because we’re in a remote area, our internet is slow and livestreams were not really possible. There was a time in the summer of 2020 where things opened up a little, (before the next big ‘lockdowns’ came into place) and we were kindly offered space in the nearby Dock Arts Center in Carrick-On-Shannon to do some live duo performances. I managed to do a few lessons too, but had no regular teaching posts, as I’d left the London ones I had when I moved to the US. After awhile I adjusted and I’m now practicing again like crazy, having almost fallen in love with playing the instrument again. I’ve also been doing some livestreamed duos with a great Northern Irish drummer called David Lyttle which has been a nice challenge. I’m very much looking forward to playing with bands again as things hopefully move forward, which I have to believe they will.
JGL: Fingers crossed! At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
PR: I started playing guitar at 10 years old. My dad was an excellent semi-pro clarinet player who played jazz in our area. He tried in vain to get me into playing a wind instrument, but it was initially Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin that inspired me to take up the guitar. I’m still a huge Sabbath and Zep fan and that led me to Hendrix and the blues. I really love the connection the guitar has to blues based music. Because of dad, Jazz was never far away, so I started to raid his record collection when I was 14 and getting much more serious about playing. I discovered Miles Davis and the rest is history!
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
PR: The first jazz guitarist I got really into was Barney Kessel, again through my dad’s collection. I was very fortunate to meet and see him play twice, which was incredibly inspiring. This led me onto Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Pat Martino and basically all the guitar greats. I started to try to hear the whole cross spectrum which later led to phases of Metheny, Scofield, Frisell etc. I’m more passionate about live music than record collecting, so I was lucky to have the great jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s in London, which enabled me to see many amazing artists perform as well as play in support bands to giants like Betty carter, Elvin Jones etc.
I was trying to find a direction myself, which was somewhere between all the newer guitarists and the whole tradition. I saw Kevin Eubanks play with Dave Holland’s innovative ‘Extensions’ band of the time and later saw the guitar trio version, again with Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith on drums on many occasions. I can only describe it as life changing at the time! I’m always influenced by my surroundings, so I’ve been listening to some great Irish music. I particularly like a band called ‘The Gloaming’ which is a sort of folk/minimalist crossover group which plays very interesting music. I’ve been going back to Bartok’s piano concerto 2 many times and lots of other 20th century music. Otherwise, I’m flipping through my iTunes jazz collection and listening to late night radio shows from around the world on which I stumble across a lot of new things, to me at least.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
PR: Although I’m a guitarist, I always wanted to be a jazz musician in the broadest sense. Great pianists such as McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock etc. have had as much influence on my playing as the guitarists I love. The same goes for Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Trane as well as a huge array of horn players. Miles Davis will always remain my all-time musical inspiration. Nonetheless I often go back to the guitarists I mentioned and many more, to retain my connection with and feeling for the instrument. I enjoy the accompanist role of guitar as much as soloing, so I always love to hear Barney. I can’t imagine a time when I don’t need to check in with Hendrix either.
JGL: What kind of formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing) and how did these experiences help you get where you are today?
PR: Between the age of 15 – 16 I had very formative lessons with a great session player called John Richards. He was at the time, the house guitarist with the Royal Shakespeare Company and had a guitar shop in a nearby town called Burton on Trent, which I stumbled across while my parents were shopping in that town. It must have been fate, because it couldn’t have been better for me at the time. I hated school and was desperate to find someone to really challenge me in a way that pointed to becoming a professional musician. He certainly did this! John was an excellent jazz player and could play anything really, but his forte was perhaps blues, which he plays at a truly world class level. He made me get a strong sound by developing a solid down stroke, before I was ever allowed to play up and down. He got me to play many different styles of guitar playing and being a pragmatist, encouraged me to learn to read music.
In his shop, he also had American tuition books, which was unheard of outside of London at the time, so I was able to purchase books by Joe Diorio, Pat Martino, Don Mock and many other great players. I think all of this was the beginning of my love of diversity in music. I gained experience sitting in with my dad and others in Derby then later went on to study on a post graduate course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London for 1 year, which was its full duration. I was the youngest person to do this at the time, being 18 and gaining my place by passing the audition. The modern system of jazz under-grad courses had not yet come into place at the time in the UK and only emerged a few years later. Had it been the system we know today, I would have probably gone through it, but as it was, I was thrust into the world at 19 trying to make it on the London scene, which was an education in itself!
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
PR: My first guitar was a steel string acoustic. I don’t remember the brand. I then had a cheap Les Paul copy and went onto a Tokai Strat copy, then some kind of semi-solid and eventually bought a 1978 Yamaha AE1200 archtop from John Richards. I still love that guitar and have gone back to playing it a lot. The great NY luthier Ric McCurdy got in good shape for me a few years ago. As Ric said, it’s not a Rolls Royce but it’s an excellent pick-up truck! I like it because it’s so loud acoustically and is basically an L5 copy which was made in the early days of Yamaha instruments, when they were producing a smaller amount of very good instruments at an affordable price.
I’ve since had many guitars including a newer D’Angelico New Yorker remake, but I’m currently endorsing the guitars of ‘Case Guitars’ in the UK, handmade by the great Jon Case. I have a semi-solid J3 which is an excellent all-round guitar, which I played on some tracks on the Peter Leitch record and a full J3 Archtop which I commissioned Jon to make for me, based on all the things I liked about the prototype he had given me. I’ve recorded with both many times.
JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?
I smile because I’m not really a gear junkie, although I can be persuaded! When I moved to NYC, I was back to schlepping around on subways, so I got very minimal. Subsequently I’ve been using a Quilter Micro Pro Mach 2 which is a great portable jazz amp, which has more of a valve vibe to it than many other popular jazz combos and can be loud if you need it to be. It took me a minute to get used to it, but with experimentation, I found out how to get the best out of it. For years my amp of choice was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which is stuck in London at the moment and I miss it.
I had a Blues Deville for a while, which was a modern version of the old ‘bassman’. It sounded great but was just too heavy, so I sold it. I’ve let go of some great amps over the years! I don’t use any particularly unusual effects, although I’ve recently been incorporating a ‘GameChanger Plus sustain pedal’ into my duo work, which is very effective. Otherwise, I use standard pedals plus a GT1 multi fx pedal. A lot of people dislike multi fx, but if you ignore the pre-sets and programme your own sounds, you can get some good things. I mostly use it for reverb, volume and sometimes delay. For studios I have an Eventime Timefactor Delay which is much more subtle, but I can’t be bothered to drag things like that around for gigs! On the Peter Leitch album I used a ‘freeze pedal’ on a few things to create a horn like blend on things.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
PR: Darn that’s a hard question. Everyone I’ve mentioned and more! Years ago ‘Partisans’ did some collaboration gigs with the amazing guitar player Wayne Krantz and that was really fun. Wayne is a good friend of mine and I used to see him play all the time in NYC. He’s a phenomenal improviser who never plays the same way, even though he often plays a similar repertoire. Of course, Miles would have been the dream. I’d really love to play with Herbie Hancock and/or Wayne Shorter but I can think of hundreds of greats to complete a sort of Star Trek style hologram jazz fantasy! I’d still love to play with Dave Holland, an ambition I’ve had for years and play more with many of people I’ve already worked also. I’m a huge fan of Andy Bey and that would be great. Bjork would be cool too and I like Shai Maestro and there are plenty of New York guys I didn’t quite reach yet. I’d love to play with Jack DeJohnette. I’m looking forward to meeting people here in Ireland too. There’s a very creative scene going on here which I haven’t been able to access yet because of the pandemic and there are many interesting musicians and composers.
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you?
PR: Yes, I’d decided by the age of 14 really. I remember having a career talk in my school in Derby, (which is an industrial town) and the teacher nearly fell on the floor laughing when I told him of my plans to be a musician. That made me more determined of course. I have no concepts for making it work other than perseverance and not being swayed by trends, which come and go quickly.
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
PR: My practice routine has always been erratic and I’ve never had any system or consistent approach. It was always very geared towards whatever work I was doing. However, over the years, I learned to really work on small, focussed areas that I want to improve and try not to noodle around too much when I do practice. This means sometimes I’ll do it for half an hour or if I get into it, sometimes for up to 8 hours on a good day! Hey, I’ve had nothing but time recently! Some days I give my hands a break and don’t play at all. I think about music all the time and work on things like independence away from the instrument too. Recently I’ve been trying to play some finger style country things, which I find difficult, so that I can then apply the techniques to other kinds of music. I’m trying to get back into writing again too and took a composition lesson with pianist/composer Benoit Delbecq the other day.
JGL: Your academic career is as almost as broad as your playing career. How did you get involved in teaching formally and do you take private students?
PR: I drifted into it really, having had no formal teaching training, largely out of necessity, but I enjoy it too. I’ve had some amazing students over the years in the various London music colleges and elsewhere. I like the fact it makes me try to consolidate my own playing and sometimes re-evalute my own concepts, in order to make them concise and transmittable. My favorite type of teaching is working with small ensembles, which I’ve been lucky to do in various workshops around the world over the years. I do take private students, yes!
JGL: There seems to be two schools of thought in the jazz world when it comes to learning one’s instrument. Either one follows the academic route of learning via formal institutional study or one follows a more “traditional” route of learning through private lessons and getting one’s butt kicked on the bandstand…lol. What is your position on the subject and what was your plan of action when beginning to learn this music?
PR: As I said earlier, I basically did the latter because the modern system wasn’t in place. There are great things about both ways, but I think the old school way was very good for creating instinctive musicians who have a story to tell, whatever that may be. Some of the theoretical things that kids know now at 18, I didn’t discover until I was about 30, but there was something very grounding in having to seek out things for yourself, which meant not playing things until you really hear them. I guess a mixture of the two would be ideal.
JGL: According to your online Bio, you have an extensive list of recordings either as a leader, co-leader or group member. Your The Immeasurable Code record was awarded Jazz Times Critics List Best Album of 2011 and features Mark Turner amongst other great supporting players. Can you talk a little about that CD and why you think it had such an impact? Is there one album of yours as a leader that you’d like to give a shout out to above the rest or are they all equally important?
PR: Thanks for mentioning it Lyle. That was a live quintet record with me, Mark and the fabulous Gareth Lockrane on flutes as well as a great rhythm section of Michael Janisch on bass and Ernesto Simpson on drums. I’m not really aware of the impact of it, other than on myself, but it was a great writing and playing opportunity for me and the record features all my originals. I started to become a frequent visitor to NYC around 1997 and I first met Mark Turner back then when Christine recorded an album of in NYC around that time and Billy Hart, who was also on it, recommended Mark for the recording. He’s a truly wonderful musician, as is Billy. I’ve always played standards, which I love doing, but when I record, which is not that often, I’m always compelled to play original music, because it feels truer to myself. I enjoyed all the recordings I did, although I never listen to them.
It’s not one of my albums as leader but I’m very proud to play on the Christine Tobin record ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ for which she won a BAFTA British composer award. It’s her musical settings of W B Yeats poems and the music she wrote and the singing and playing from all concerned on that album is beautiful. I was meant to record the band with Jed last year, which of course was postponed, but I hope to do that asap and tour much more with him.
JGL: And speaking of awards, your band Partisans were winners of the ‘Jazz CD Of The Year’ in the 2015 Parliamentary Jazz Awards for a CD titled Swamp. Can you also talk a bit about this album as well as the group? Are you all still together making music? Any plans for a follow-up?
PR: We were very happy to get that award. It led to an extensive North American tour which in some ways cemented my desire to live in NYC. That band was formed by myself and Julian Siegel in 1996 and we continued to work together as a band until 2019, so it’s the group I was in for the longest period. Spinal Tap doesn’t come close J! It featured Julian on sax/ bass clarinet as well as the great bass player Thaddeus Kelly and New York dynamo Gene Calderazzo on drums. The band has a much more electric edge to it than any of my other projects, which just evolved over the years. The tour in 2019 was called the “Never Say Never” tour, because we decided it was time to concentrate on new things and leave it in a creative, good place. We don’t know if we’ll play as a band again and at the moment, there are no plans to do so. We’re all very good friends and Gene has been in many of my other projects, including my last recorded band which was an organ trio with Ross Stanley. I think if I had to pick a favorite ‘Partisans’ album it would be ‘By Proxy’. I like it because we had all new music, which we’d hardly played and somehow pulled it together, but I have very fond memories of all of them and ‘Swamp’ is also a really hard-hitting, fun album.
JGL: You have been featured in a variety of music settings from solo guitar to Big Band. Is there a musical situation that you enjoy the most and if so, why?
PR: The simple answer to that is no, I like it all! I remember reading an article by saxophonist Ellery Eskelin years ago in which he mentioned how his mother, (an organist I believe) had regularly done 3 month residencies in venues playing 8 sets a night back in the 60’s. That article really made me think. There was no equivalent of that in the era I came into, so I decided to try to do every type of thing possible in order to gain the maximum experience available to me.
JGL: Speaking of a variety of musical situations, your Six Strings & the Beat features Guitar, Bass and Drums along with two violins, a viola and cello. What’s that all about!? 🙂
PR: Ha, indeed! I don’t know what it was about, but I’d sure like to go back to that and develop it more! I learned a heck of a lot from doing that and would like to write more for unusual ensembles. The gigs were great fun, but it was an expensive band to keep going!
JGL: I must apologize but I’ve only just heard about you through my review of Peter Leitch’s New Life Orchestra where you are the featured player in the Guitar chair as it were. Your playing on that album is sublime and fits right in. How did this project come about for you and were there any specific or general challenges faced when getting the notes from paper to tape? Also…was Peter a harsh taskmaster? Just kidding around! 🙂
PR: Thanks! That’s totally understandable you hadn’t come across me, as most of my career was on the other side of the world. I’m happy you found me now! The connection with Peter came about through our mutual friend, Jed Levy who I mentioned earlier. Peter was looking for someone to take the guitar chair and Jed recommended me when Peter was first forming the band and music. I guess he must have liked it, because I ended up doing gigs and was then very happy to go on to play on the album.
In answer to the last part of your question, ha ha, no comment of course, but he certainly had some very specific things he wanted me to do which were challenging. Having said that, he also allowed me great freedom to be myself too, which was very nice. There were also many other musicians in the ensemble which I admired, such as Steve Wilson to name just one, which my involvement with the project allowed me to connect with, so it was a very enjoyable experience all round. I was of course also always aware that Peter was a great guitarist, but I tried to put that out of my mind when I was playing and do as I do. I really hope he’s able to develop it further and tour etc as it’s a great musical venture and he deserves to do so.
JGL: Apart from playing on Peter’s project you have also played with a bevy of top-shelf musicians like Dame Cleo Laine, Steve Lacy, Big John Patton, Wayne Krantz, Billy Hart, Kenny Wheeler, fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen, Bob Brookmeyer and Dave Liebman to name just a “few” off of a very long list!! What were the challenges in garnering a reputation to get to play with such heavy-hitters and are there any take-aways you’d like to share with us?
PR: All I ever wanted to do was get deeper into the music and keep developing, so I put myself in as many of those situations as possible. As I touched on earlier, I never had any plan, other than to keep going, but I always sort out environments which were not always the easy path, such as moving to NYC at age 45! I believe in the old ideal of striving to find my own voice in the most honest way possible, by whatever means, so that is what I’d advise younger players to do and “Don’t believe the Hype”!
JGL: Speaking of heavy-hitters, you had the pleasure – I assume – of accompanying the world renowned Barbara Streisand on the BBC’s Jonathan Ross Show in 2009! Where you a member of the band or were you hired specifically for that gig? Was there a rehearsal or two or were you just given a chart at show time? Either way, what was that experience like and you have you and “Babs” kept in touch? 🙂
PR: Ha ha, strangely, she hasn’t called lately. Maybe she’s got duff broadband like me! It was really a one-off event, but I guess I got selected because of my adaptability, accompanist skills etc. I’d like to think so anyway! It was fun and we did rehearse over a couple of days without her, with just the MD, Tamir Hendelman and the rest of the band. The main reason for that, was that we had actually prepared a very large selection of tunes, even though she actually only chose two in the end out of that big pool of music. She ran the whole lot when she turned up for the ‘dress rehearsal’, which was in many ways the most relaxed and nicest bit of it all. The album she was promoting was with an orchestra, so I’d been copping bits and pieces of the strings stuff etc as well as performing in the conventional guitar role. I had some killer licks prepared for ‘Evergreen’, so I was disappointed she didn’t do it!
JGL: You seem to have found your stride in this business and have done quite well and I assume will continue to do so. How difficult did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player when you were coming up? Any “tips or tricks” you can lay on those interested in doing the same?
PR: Merci beaucoup monsieur! 🙂 I have been fortunate to be a professional musician, against all odds I guess and I hope I can continue to do so in the future. I’m essentially a gigging musician, so if we can return to some sort of norm in that respect I’ll be happy. If it all switches to online, I’ll lose interest quite quickly I think and head in some new, more simple life direction. I have no tips or tricks I’m afraid.
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to the music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you/did you face on your instrument and how do you/ did you work at getting over them?
PR: I was never particularly insecure on the instrument, because as I hinted at, I didn’t ever set out to be the ‘best’ guitarist at all and was always aware that there were others that would always be able to do more with the instrument than me. However, I do have my own personal form of competitiveness as a musician, mostly with myself! If anything, I’m a perfectionist and very rarely come away from anything thinking “whoopee do”, because I always want it to be better. I find in real life situations there is so much distraction, which often makes me feel I wasn’t quite on my ultimate form. Despite all of that, I cope with it fine and learned years ago to let things go too, as long as I feel I gave it my best shot, under whatever circumstances were going on.
JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
PR: Hmm, another tough question. I’ve had to learn about aspects of the business side of things purely to survive, but my instinct is to really dislike the idea that young musicians might be focusing on that as much as the music. I’m a bit of a purist in that sense although, ‘needs must’ of course. I’m sorry to say that I do think all the self-promotion aspect of the business, of which the responsibility has been nearly entirely dumped on artists themselves, accumulating over the last 10 years or so, has had a detrimental effect on the music.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
PR: Not really, but of course I’ve doubted the sustainability on many occasions, particularly over the last year, but I feel positive too. I always said I’d like to be a forest ranger, like the dude in the Yogi Bear cartoons.
JGL: When you’re not on the band-stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?
PR: I like walking and I’m a film buff. I loved going to ‘Film Forum’ on a regular basis when I was in NY. I used to read a lot more, but that’s slipped a bit recently. I take an interest in current affairs, although I duck in and out if it gets too much and I enjoy seeing friends away from work and the usual stuff. Since it opened up a bit more here recently, I went to a couple of exhibitions, including one of the amazing Irish Poet, Seamus Heaney in Dublin, which I really enjoyed. I love travelling too, and there are loads of places I haven’t made it to yet, such as Japan, so I hope that comes back.
JGL: What does the future hold for Phil Robson?
PR: I think I covered a lot of it, but otherwise I don’t really know in these precarious times. In the short term, I’m trying to master various bits of software for a home recording project which will involve composing new music involving quite a lot of experimental electronic sounds. This is a new territory for me sonically, so I’m gradually accumulating a small amount of equipment to do it. I’m grateful to have received a grant to help me pursue this idea, awarded by the Arts Council of Ireland, so I’m right at the beginning of this project now. I hope to release that at some stage soon. Otherwise, I’ll keep on striving to make great music in the future, across a whole range of genres.
JGL: Thank you Phil for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavors!
PR: You’re very welcome, thanks for having me. Best of luck with the magazine!
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