“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Al Turner
Interview by Baldwin "Smitty" Smith
Jazz Monthly: Well, my next guess is an incredible bass player. He hails from Detroit, Michigan, and if you don’t know who this cat is, you really need to ask somebody. He goes by the name “The Burner” and it is an appropriate name. He’s got a great project out. It is called Movin’ and you’ve got to hear this great record. He has some fantastic players and singers on this great record. Please welcome the man with the ultra sonic groove, Mr. Al Turner. Al, how ya doin’, my friend?
Al Turner (AT): I’m wonderful, Smitty. It is a privilege for me and an honor to be talking to you and I thank you for that great intro. (Both laugh.) I need to take you on the road with me.
Jazz Monthly: Well, hey, it would be a pleasure, my friend, and the pleasure’s all mine to be talking with you as well because I’ve always wanted to sit down and do something like this with you because I have followed your career for a long time and I know what you can do and I know what you’ve accomplished in your career. I hear all the time from your peers as well how much you are so respected and so in demand because of your great vibe and your fantastic talent.
AT: Oh, thank you, thank you. I’ve been very blessed to play with a lot of great artists and record on a lot of great records, so I must be doing something right, huh?
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. I think you’re doing a lot of things right, man, and that’s a cool thing. Now, you started out playing the bass, didn’t you?
AT: Yes, I did. I started when I was a teenager. Actually, in junior high school I wanted to play drums, but my parents did not buy a drum set because they didn’t want the noise. (Both laugh.) So my oldest brother was playing guitar and they bought him an acoustic guitar, so he suggested that I play bass, so I went out and bought a bass guitar and just started playing around with it, didn’t know anything about it. Eventually I started learning how to play from listening to records. At the time we were listening to a lot of Motown because we grew up in Detroit, obviously, but I was just trying to pick up bass lines from records and that’s how I actually got started.
Jazz Monthly: Did you ever feel like you wanted to cross over and take your brother’s guitar and play it instead of the bass?
AT: Not really, you know? Even though I played around with it from time to time, I never really fell in love with the guitar as much as I did the bass.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, so it was just love at first sight, huh? Or first touch?
AT: Yeah, something about those low tones.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, and those thick strings.
AT: Right, right.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. And right out of high school, you started to play in some clubs and a cool band. Free Spirit?
AT: Yeah, I was playing in a band called Free Spirit and Anita Baker was our lead vocalist at the time. She’s obviously a superstar now, but she was great then. We did Top 40 clubs around the Detroit area and in Canada and learned a lot from that situation, and from there I met other people and I played with Orthea Barns for many years, who was a great vocalist in Detroit. I worked with her for, what, probably ten plus years.
Jazz Monthly: Wow. Talk about your first major break. I mean, obviously it was cool to be playing with Anita Baker and Orthea, but to jump on the national stage, so to speak, talk about that first major break.
AT: Well, actually, I started doing recording sessions before I actually started touring. I was fortunate to work with Michael Powell, who actually produced three of Anita Baker’s records, and he was in Detroit. I met him actually back in the early days when I started to get into the club scene, and once he started producing Anita Baker and other artists, he called me in and I was like his guy. So I worked on a lot of records, Gladys Knight records, Patti Labelle, Nancy Wilson, Vesta, you name it. It was a lot of vocal sessions that we were doing at the time.
I actually started working with a lot of those people and from that, even though I knew Earl Klugh from being in Detroit, I had never worked with him, but he called me to play on one of his records and I played on the record and in the studio he asked would I go out on the road because I had never really toured and I really wasn’t interested in touring because I was doing a lot of recording dates and I wanted to stay close to home. I had a small child at the time. My daughter was small. So I wasn’t really interested in touring so he asked would I go out and I said “Well, man, let me think about it. I can do some of your dates but not all of them.” But anyway, to make a long story short, I went on tour with him. I went to London. That was my very first gig with him and I was like “Man, this is kinda cool” and I was a big fan of Earl’s already anyway.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, aren’t we all.
AT: And we had already recorded the record and it was good just being around good people, good musicians, so I started touring with him and 13 years later I’m still touring with him and recording. (Both laugh.) So that was actually the start of me really touring and through my relationship with Earl, I met Bob James and I toured with Bob James, I recorded with him. I met Everett Harp through Earl and I’ve worked with him, he’s on my record. And I met Oleta Adams, actually played on her record Michael Powell produced, two of her records, so I met her in the process and I worked with her, toured with her and recorded with her throughout the years. So basically it’s like a snowball effect. One relationship leads to another one.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, but I think the other part of that, too, and it is so important, like you said, it’s hard to stay away from good people like Earl and Oleta.
Jazz Monthly: And those great people because, like you, I have a lot of respect for them too and love what they do and love them as a person.
Jazz Monthly: But equally I know they recognize your talents and what you bring to the table and to the band, and I think that’s why it’s been such a long and flourishing relationship with all these great artists that you have.
AT: Yeah, certainly, certainly. I guess that means a lot if you can deliver the goods, and a lot of it has to do with personality as well because there’s a lot of great players in the world, as you well know.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
AT: And when artists travel and they’re on the road, they need somebody that’s gonna be there and is gonna be an asset and not a headache.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly.
AT: So I have a good attitude and I’m pretty much self-sufficient. I don’t need a lot when I’m out.
Jazz Monthly: In other words, you’re not a drama cat. You’re not one of those drama guys, huh?
AT: Not at all, not at all.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.) I know.
AT: And I know a lot of those.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I know we do. And that’s what I was talking about, too. See, I’ve followed your career and we’ve talked before and I know where you’re coming from, and I can see why Earl won’t go anywhere without you. I’ve had conversations with Bob James about you and he’s always saying “I’m always trying to get him, but he’s always busy.”
Jazz Monthly: So, I mean, you are a valuable asset to all of these great artists and even though you’re not out front in front of the band…
AT: Not yet.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
AT: I’m on my way, on my way.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. And it’s time, man. It’s about time.
AT: Yeah, yeah.
Jazz Monthly: But your value, I mean, come on, this is the rhythm thing. We’re talking about the backbone and the backbeat of the gig and the record.
Jazz Monthly: And they recognize that and I totally recognize it because it’s like I said at the beginning of this conversation, if you don’t know who Al Turner is, you really need to ask somebody because, man, you have really done some fantastic and amazing things over the years, contributing to projects and your own. I mean, it’s a wonderful thing that should be recognized throughout the music community.
AT: Yeah, well, thank you, man, and I appreciate you’re helping to make that happen.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. And speaking of getting out front, you’re Movin’ out front…
AT: Yeah, yeah.
Jazz Monthly: With this…
AT: New record, yeah.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, and this is some kickin’ stuff. And I know why they call you “The Burner.”
AT: Oh, thank you, thank you. (Both laugh.) I’m so happy that you’re enjoying the music.
Jazz Monthly: Oh, man, I’m enjoying the music and you have a great selection of musicians to support you with this record. My boy Ron Otis…
Jazz Monthly: Who I totally admire, I can remember years ago when I first saw him. I think he was with Bob James in Dallas one weekend.
Jazz Monthly: It was a few years ago and I was just blown away. It’s like, man, who is this…?
AT: Yeah, yeah, he’s like my right arm.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man.
AT: Never leave home without him.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right. And here again, another cat that has no drama.
Jazz Monthly: In fact, if you notice, he’s always smiling when he’s playing the drums.
AT: Yeah, yeah, Ron’s like a little brother to me. I can remember the very first time we played together was actually at a church function. We played in church for this concert and the drummer that was supposed to do it couldn’t make it and Ron was actually the sub for the date and we had never played together, he didn’t rehearse or anything. He came right in and at the time he was probably 19 years old. I was like “Man, this kid’s gonna be good.” And he looks up to me as a big brother figure and we just do a lot of things together. We’re kind of like a package deal, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
AT: And most of the situations that we play in, he’s the drummer and I’m the bass player, so we have a good chemistry and a nice pocket, nice groove, and no drama.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I love that, man, and that’s such a cool thing and it just makes the music just ten times better than what it could be.
Jazz Monthly: So that’s always a beautiful thing. And he’s working on a record, isn’t he?
AT: Certainly is. He’s working on a record, I produced a song and co-wrote a song on the record and played on a track, several tracks, and it’s a very good record. Earl’s playing on it, Bob James is playing on it, and a bunch of other great musicians, so that should be out very shortly.
Jazz Monthly: Well, I can’t wait for him to come on and talk about it. Look out for Ron Otis, he’s someone that everyone must check out.
AT: Yeah, it’s a very nice record.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I talked to him in New York a little while back and we were talking about that, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. So now I gotta tell you, man, “Bassin’” is my favorite track.
AT: Okay. All right, all right.
Jazz Monthly: I’m lovin’ that track and “Stopwatch,” you know?
AT: Okay, yeah, yeah.
Jazz Monthly: Two of my favorites.
AT: Well, my favorite track is all of them.
Jazz Monthly: I knew you were gonna say that. I knew it. (Both laugh.)
AT: I’m biased, Smitty. I like ‘em all.
Jazz Monthly: I expect no less.
AT: When we were talking about picking a single for the record, I’m like “Well, every song on the record could be a single, so I’m not gonna pick it.”
Jazz Monthly: Right.
AT: But my mom likes “Stopwatch.” That’s her favorite song.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed.
AT: That’s the first single.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, I totally agree with her. I mean, I just love that track. I mean, I like ‘em all.
AT: Yeah, I do. My wife loves “Te Quiero.” She’s been saying “That should be your next single” and I must give her all the credit in the world because she really, really helped me to put that thing together. She helped design the cover and everything and just the concept of what that is, and she’s very supportive so I gotta give her big ups on that.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. Well, let’s definitely give her some props because she did a magnificent job. I mean, I love the album cover.
AT: Yeah, that was her and Ryan Scott actually did the work, but it was her, you know, “Let’s try this. Let’s do this.” She is very, very, very intuitive when it comes to those kinds of things. She’s very, very creative.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and I love the contrast of colors so you can read the liner notes and that kind of thing.
AT: Right, right. That was her idea.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, tell her she nailed it.
Jazz Monthly: Because it’s really cool. And I like that same track too, “Te Quiero,” because I really appreciate the rhythm of the strings with you and Earl.
AT: Yeah, you know, I actually wrote that song with Earl in mind, even before I decided to do a record. And I presented it in hopes that he would put it on one of his records. (Both laugh.) But he didn’t. I thank God for that. But he was so gracious enough to play on it and he did a great job, and I was fortunate enough to have it on my record.
Jazz Monthly: And I hope that the listening audience out there, I mean, on all levels, will pick up this record and really give it a listen because this is a breath of fresh air of great music, it really is.
AT: Oh, thank you, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: And I’m so glad that you had a little reunion of sorts with putting Oleta Adams on here to do “Your Will.” That’s a great track.
AT: Oh, man, I have to just tell you the story behind that.
Jazz Monthly: Oh, cool.
AT: Now that we’re on it, because actually “Your Will,” I had a track, I had the music cut for a few years. I’m not gonna tell you how many. (Both laugh.) But it was just a track, it was a music track, and I was happy with the way it was sounding and it was just a rhythm track. I was touring with Oleta at the time, we were out and I asked her to sing on the record, and she said “Well, send me some tracks.” I sent her three different tracks, and “Your Will” was one of them and two other tracks, and I had no idea which one she would pick or decide to work on or if she would like any of them, for that matter. And she recorded a scratch vocal, wrote the lyrics, and sent it to me via e-mail, and I opened it up, Smitty, and I just started crying.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
AT: No, seriously. I listened to it and I was like “Wow, this is amazing.” So I said “That’s it” and so she said “Okay, cool, well, I’ll re-do the vocals” and I said “No, I like this” and she was very adamant about re-doing the vocals because she did all of the vocal parts and she just felt that she could do a better job, and I said “You know what? This is it for me. I’m happy with it.” I went in and did my thing as a producer and I finished the record up, did not let her hear it until it was mixed, and I sent it to her and she was still like “No, Al, I wanna re-do the vocals” and I said “No, just wait and hear it.” She listened and she was like “Okay, I see what you mean.” And, I mean, sometimes that first take or that first stab at something is always the best, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Al, you are so right. I didn’t mean to cut you off, but you said it right there.
Jazz Monthly: And I know some people this is gonna sound like a broken record to them. But I’m a firm believer that there is nothing better than the first take.
Jazz Monthly: There is something about it and I encourage artists all the time. If you’re going in the studio, turn that tape on when you come out of the restroom!
AT: Yeah, certainly.
Jazz Monthly: When you first walk in the door, hit record.
Jazz Monthly: Because there’s something so beautiful about a first take of anything. And I just recently had this conversation with someone.
AT: Yeah, yeah. Because a lot of times, man, when you re-do things, it just becomes sterile and you start to think about it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
AT: And not to say that you won’t come up with good results, but there’s something magical about that first take because it’s fresh and you’re gonna approach it from where you are in that space in time.
Jazz Monthly: Right, it’s totally uninhibited. I mean, there’s no forethought.
Jazz Monthly: And I think sometimes artists will try too hard to capture something.
Jazz Monthly:: When if they just let themselves go and let it happen, it flows just tremendously.
AT: Certainly, certainly.
Jazz Monthly: So that’s a very cool story, man, wow, and I just love Oleta. She’s a great person to start with.
AT: Yeah, a beautiful, beautiful person.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and her husband, too, is a cool cat.
AT: Yeah, John’s a good guy and drummer as well.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, very cool. Talk to me about what your brother, Lionel has meant to you and your career.
AT: He’s always been an inspiration to me and he doesn’t even know it, but I always looked up to him and I always tried to hang around even though he’s a couple years older than I am. I always tried to hang around him and his friends and just mimic the things that they were into. He was into the Jimi Hendrix thing, the Rock & Roll thing back when we were getting started. So I went through that whole phase and that era of trying to be rock stars, in the basement no less, but we had a lot of good times and we learned a lot from those experiences and they helped me to be who I am today.
Jazz Monthly: Very cool.
AT: So he’s a great big brother and I love him dearly and a good guitar player.
Jazz Monthly: Yes he is, man, because when I heard him on “It’s Good to Have Friends” and “Te Quiero,” I was like wow, this cat’s got some chops.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, so that’s a true blessing, I know.
Jazz Monthly: And you know I gotta mention my boy, Mr. Lenny Price, on “Forever Love.”
AT: Yeah, man, he’s a phenomenal saxophone player and he came in and laid it out.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, he and I go back a ways and whenever I hear anything about him I get excited because he is one of those sterling cats that you gotta love, you know?
Jazz Monthly: With a lot of talent.
AT: Yeah, he really does have a lot of talent and we play together in Earl’s band, so we’re actually out on the road now and we’ll be playing together tonight.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, exactly, man. There’s something else I wanted to ask you about. You have been in a lot of bands with a lot of A-List artists. Do you take something different from each one of them or is it that some of them are somewhat similar?
AT: Oh, definitely, definitely, and every situation is different and I’m glad you brought that up because playing in Earl’s band is different than playing in Kem’s band or Oleta Adams’ band or even playing with Bob (James), for that matter, because the music, even though there’s differences, I approach them from a different place. Even though I’m the same guy and I bring the same thing, it’s a different discipline for me as a sideman, as a bass player. In Bob’s gig I get to take a lot more chances. It’s one of those gigs where he constantly pushes you and challenges you every night to just open yourself up and try different things whereas Kem’s gig is basically a very disciplined, structured type of situation. Obviously he’s singing and I don’t really get a chance to open up as much.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and improv.
AT: Even though the energy is different, his gig is actually one of the most energetic gigs that I play on but, again, there’s a different set of discipline. The same with Oleta. Yeah, and more than anything, Smitty, I try to respect the music first and foremost.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, I love that.
AT: Because it’s not about showing all your chops and I’m this hotrod, I can do all these tricks and things, because it’s all about the music at the end of the day and being a bass player, it’s my responsibility to make the artist feel good, feel comfortable, and to make the music feel good, so I have to be very conscious of that, but when it’s solo time, it’s my time to step out, then I can do my thing. But first and foremost my job is to hold it down, make the music feel good.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. Well, see, that’s why they’re all after ya. (Both laugh.) See, it’s that respect and that extra mile of caring about each given situation because not everybody feels the way you do.
AT: That’s true, that’s true.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I’m not putting anybody down, but there are some that wanna put themselves out there. They’re trying to make a name and all of that.
AT: Certainly, certainly.
Jazz Monthly: But here you are caring more about the music that you’re involved with at that given time.
AT: Mm-hmm, exactly, and you will make a name by being that person, trust me, because people will want to use you and work with you, and a lot of those disciplines are learned in the studio recording records and you can’t just do anything you wanna do when you’re supporting a vocalist, say, for instance. You can’t step on the music. It’s not about how many notes you play, it’s what you play.
Jazz Monthly: Right, and I think that you hit it right on the head, man. That is so cool. And now you just gave me an explanation without even knowing it why you are so loved and appreciated and respected in this business.
AT: Oh, man, well, thank you. A lot of the times it just comes naturally for me and I guess a lot of it has to do with my personality as well.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, yes indeed. And your music can be heard on television too, right? And radio?
AT: Yeah, yes.
Jazz Monthly: Speaking of people wanting to use your music.
AT: Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m trying to get in everywhere I can, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right, man.
AT: You know anybody who needs some music?
Jazz Monthly: Well, any time I hear of it. you know I’ll pass it on, my friend. I’ll tell them that The Burner can burn for you.
AT: Yes, definitely, man, definitely.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, so now, speaking of this great record, how can people get the record?
AT: It’s available—everybody’s online now so I always mention that first. It’s available online, Amazon.com; iTunes if you’re into the iTunes thing; you can go to my Web site, www.alturner.com, and it will take you to a site where you can purchase it; stores, retail stores around the country.
Jazz Monthly: At your gigs?
AT: At my gigs, certainly at the gigs, for sure, out of the trunk of my car, grocery store, wherever you see me.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
AT: I’ll have a CD for you. We could make it available. But, yeah, I’ve been blessed. Earl (Klugh) allows me to play a song in his show, which is a blessing for me, and so we do really well on the road. But I’m actually seeking out other avenues to get it out even into broader markets. As you well know, it’s very difficult in these times, especially being a bassist. For some reason people are not used to bass players being up front, but thanks to Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller and those kind of guys, Wayman Tisdale is one of the hot new guys, he’s out front, it’s really helping my situation.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, those guys have really been a blessing for bass players. Mel Brown, Gerald Veasley, all these cats.
AT: Yes, yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of guys out there. Most of them I consider to be friends and colleagues and just good people buddies, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I noticed that in your liner notes you named all of them.
AT: Yeah, and those are just a few. And I really, really believe in just giving credit to where it’s due, you know what I mean?
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed.
AT: Because you can do nothing, and I said in my liner notes there’s nothing you can really do by yourself.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
AT: Somewhere along the way somebody’s gonna help you and it could be in the smallest way, but I really thank God for having the opportunities to meet people, great people like that, musicians, and just people in general, and I learn from every situation that I’m involved in. It could just be a conversation with someone. I try to take something from that and use it in a positive way.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and speaking of that, speaking of people helping you, talk to me about James Jamerson.
AT: Wow, well, first of all, he’s the greatest bass player to ever pick up the bass. And that’s my opinion. I mean, what he did for the electric bass, to me, he changed the world. All those great songs that he played on, being a bass player in Motown was just phenomenal, especially at the time, and he’s a huge influence on me. His playing, even today I listen to those songs and learn something from them. But his spirit still lives on in the music, just a phenomenal, phenomenal bass player. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On?” I mean, come on, give me a break.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, you don’t top that kind of stuff.
AT: Okay? And you can go down the list, all the Stevie Wonder stuff and the Temptations, Supremes. I mean, this guy, man, he was just crazy in a good way, okay?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, crazy good.
AT: Yeah, I mean, his playing, man, the things that he was able to handle. You have to really put it in perspective too because back then there wasn’t the kind of recording technology that we have today. The instrument that he used was basically just a stock instrument. There weren’t as many choices as we have today. But the types of things that he had to battle in terms of sound quality, he came out with this huge great sound and it’s just pretty evident as to it’s all about the musician and not the tool.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
AT: The creative genius is inside, you know what I mean?
Jazz Monthly: Totally.
AT: Now we have all these gadgets, we have these great instruments and everything.
Jazz Monthly: Computers.
AT: A lot of times younger musicians, even older ones—I’m not going to just say younger—but a lot of musicians get caught up into the tools.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
AT: And it’s not about that, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, it’s what you bring to the tools.
AT: Exactly, exactly that. Just tools, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
AT: Music is on the inside.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. Well, I wanted to definitely mention him because I knew what an influence he was for you and I remember all those great songs and still, like you, I still listen to them and just go “Wow” at what he accomplished.
AT: Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed.
AT: It’s amazing, man, it really is, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to play that good.
Jazz Monthly: Aw, come on, now, come on! I think you’re on your way, my friend. You’re closer than you think. How’s that?
AT: Yeah, thank you, thank you for the compliment.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. Well, Al, I just want to thank you again for this great record and for letting me have a copy.
AT: Aw, man, you are very welcome, man, and I thank you for helping me to spread the word and get it out there, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Well, it’s a pleasure.
AT: I really appreciate that.
Jazz Monthly: You’re so welcome and it’s a pleasure and honor, and I am just so glad that the record can breathe now and people can really have the opportunity to get it in their own hands and enjoy it because I’m telling ya, this is a real treat. If you love great music, great jazz with a funky groove, this is it. I mean, if you wanna groove and just kinda let every member of your body move, this is the project.
AT: Oh, thank you, man, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: Come on, it’s Detroit, you know?
AT: (Both laugh.) Yeah, there’s something about Detroit. The water, right?
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, it’s in the water, the air, everything. I mean, in fact, if you go into Detroit and you didn’t get your groove on, something’s wrong.
AT: Okay? That’s where Jamerson recorded all those great tracks.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly, you know?
Jazz Monthly: So this is a true representation of a Detroit groove with a very funky jazz sound and I’m just totally diggin’ it and I know everyone that will take the time to pick up your great new this record or download it from iTunes or Amazon is going to love it.
AT: Oh yeah, yeah. Go out and get it!
Jazz Monthly: All right, my friend. Well, hey, Al, thanks so much for spending a little time with the Smitty boy and talking about this great record, and you know I wish you all the best in the world with your tour that you’re on and I hope to catch you soon on the road myself, my friend.
AT: Certainly. Hopefully I’ll see you in about a month or so down in Houston.
Jazz Monthly: All right, my friend. Take care, man, and all the best.
AT: Thank you.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
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