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Thursday, January 20, 2011

New York Jazz Holiday


To the Village Vanguard to see Kurt Rosenwinkel

Me: ‘Hi, I’ve bought three tickets online for tonight – here they are. Thank You’

Door Guy: ‘Certainly, let me see.......(consults list), yes, here we are and there you go – enjoy the show’

Now that’s what MIGHT have happened if it had been any other jazz club in any other city in the world, but this being the Vanguard, in New York City what actually happened was that I delivered my part of the script and the tickets, and was met with a blank stare and disinterested shuffling of the list by the troglodyte on the door, whose studied boredom and lack of any verbal response made be feel like giving him a richly-deserved clump across the side of his head for his rudeness and stupidity.

Of course there are rude people everywhere, and other places where rudeness is the norm (Hong Kong!), but only in New York do some people pride themselves on being jerks. They imagine it’s cool somehow, and wear it as a badge of honour, and of all the possible things one could be proud of, this has to be the stupidest – being a jerk is easy! Anyone can do it! Being polite takes a little (and only a little) more effort. The rudeness itself I don’t mind, (and after about 15 visits to NYC I expect it), but the pride that some New Yorker’s take in it I find really irritating, stupid and a bit pathetic actually. Rudeness as hipness? Ha!

Rant over.

I went to New York with my son Chris, who’s a guitarist, for a ‘jazz holiday’, packing in as much music as possible in 6 days, picking up my new bass, catching the Winterjazz Fest, and seeing as many friends as possible. There’s no better place to undertake a musical orgy of this nature – there is no question that New York IS the jazz capital of the world. There are more great (and some not so great) jazz musicians living there and more jazz activity going on there, than in any other one single place in the world. This has both advantages and disadvantages for the musicians who live there (more on that anon), but for the casual visitor such as myself, it’s nothing short of an embarrassment of riches and I try to get over there at fairly regular intervals to see friends, play sometimes, and see as much music as I can.

Back to the Vanguard and Kurt. He was playing with a quartet (Aaron Parks, Ben Street and Ted Poor), and I was kind of disappointed with it – I felt it was underpowered in terms of energy and commitment from the group and I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was because the band didn’t feel like getting it going or whether they were just having an off night. It seemed a bit careless and casual at times, and really, considering its history, carelessness and casualness are not qualities you should be bringing to the Vanguard if you’re lucky enough to get a week there. Kurt really did get it going on a Byard blues in the second set and then you could see what all the fuss is about, but overall I felt a bit short-changed.

My son disagreed with me, he thought it was great – but then again, he’s a guitarist! The deification of Kurt by pretty much all guitarists under the age of thirty continues apace, and I can appreciate why – he really is unique and has his own thing. But he’s reaching that point where (like other icons before him) he’s in a winning situation with the audience as soon as he takes the guitar out of the case and so the motivation to grow and challenge himself has to come from him and him alone all the time. I’m not sure he really was up for that particular challenge on this particular evening.


(Dafnis Prieto)

Winter Jazzfest

The following night it was on to the Winter Jazzfest. I had deliberately made sure our visit coincided with the festival having read great reports of it the year before. And it was great – musically. But organisationally, to use a technical term, it sucks. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to listen to music under more uncomfortable conditions, where the audience is treated more shabbily and where the admission and ticketing procedures are more shambolic and audience-unfriendly. To buy a two-night ticket in advance and then to have to queue in the freezing cold two nights in a row to pick up tickets for the individual nights (why!?) and then not to be guaranteed entry to anything (more freezing queue-ing), and to have to endure hours of standing at the concerts themselves while not being able to actually see what you were hearing, is an indictment of the festival organisers.

Anecdotally too I’ve heard the musicians are paid very little if anything at all. If this is true then it’s a disgrace, since the much touted musical riches of which the festival boasts is based on these same musicians not getting paid. Which would be cool if nobody else got paid either. If ever I’m asked to play for nothing I always say that I’ll be happy to do it as long as the promoter, the bar staff, sound engineers, ticket sellers, doormen, and anyone else involved with the event (including the venues) are not getting any money either. But that’s never the case – it’s pretty much always the musicians who are the saps in these situations. It really leaves a bad taste in my mouth when everybody wins except the guys around whose work and dedication the whole event revolves.

But musically, and hardly surprisingly given where we were, there was some incredible music to be heard (if not seen). We attended some great performances by bands working in a wide variety of stylistic/musical approaches and the 40-minute set format of the festival really does aid multiple consumption of music, especially given the diversity of the acts. Not everything was great, but most was at least very good and often much more than very good.

I managed to catch Nguyen Le with Rudresh Mahanthappa (great!), Dafnis Prieto with Jason Lindner and Kokayi (very interesting and the improvised ‘auction’ was outstanding), Jamie Baum’s Octet (great writing), Dana Leong, (terrible, risible), Tineke Postma (very well played, but maybe a bit naively programmed considering the wham-bam-thank you ma’am nature of the festival set), Miles Okazaki with Guillaume Perret and Damion Reed (fantastic set, some very original music played by a real band), and Steve Coleman and Five Elements (a real return to form, killer set and the new band sounds great – the addition of piano and guitar really adds something).

Musically it was great for the most part and I know I inevitably missed a lot of great music too, you can’t be everywhere. But really the organisers need to get their act together – a festival boasting of its greatness while treating both audiences and musicians badly, and depending on their goodwill and willingness to put up with poor conditions is doing some pretty hollow boasting................

(with Lindsey Horner)
Socially the festival was very nice too of course and I ran into so many musician friends – Jim Black, Ben Perowsky, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Curtis Hasselbring, Nguyen Le and and many others just in the two nights we were there. And I hung out with several other musicians over the course of our visit – Arthur Kell (our very generous and gracious host while we were in NY), Jonathan Mele (whom I knew from his time in Dublin), David O Rourke (another Dublin connection – we knew each other when we were both jazz tyros, going to every gig we could in the late 70s), and especially Lindsey Horner the great bassist who is one of my oldest friends in music. Lindsey studied music in Dublin in the late 70s/eartly 80s and was on the scene, and we became good friends and have been ever since. In recession-ridden Ireland of the 80s (though we have now renewed our acquaintance with recession in recent times) about 30,000 people a year were leaving Ireland to work abroad – we used to say that Lindsey was the only person of that era to travel in the opposite direction.


(Manifestation of the iPhone Plague at Kenny's Castaways)

One thing I noticed at the gigs in NY, which is now pretty common everywhere, is the iPhone Plague....... At every gig, little beacons of light appear in all corners of the room as people obsessively check their messages, or send SMS messages. It’s impossible to look around the room and not see someone checking their phones. It’s become both a plague at gigs, and a worrying indicator that people find it more and more difficult just to concentrate on one thing at a time. Even something as great as live music can’t hold their attention anymore, everything takes second place to those damn phones. And these are adults who presumably have only had cell phones for about the past 10 years – what will it be like for kids who have been raised with them? Will they have any attention span at all or be capable of listening to music without doing something else at the same time? Brave New World..........


To the Jazz Standard on a Sunday morning to do a rhythmic clinic for young musicians. This was part of the programme they run there for talented kids called the Jazz Standard Discovery Programme, a terrific initiative directed by my old friend, guitarist arranger and composer David O Rourke, where the kids get a clinic or workshop or some kind of educational event first and then play – for real people, in a real jazz club! One of the biggest problems for young musicians (and many older ones too) these days is that it’s really hard just to be able to find places to play. For these kids the chance to play in the Jazz Standard on a Sunday morning to a full house in a jazz club atmosphere is invaluable and something that they’ll always remember.

And they were very talented kids too – very pleasant and engaged during my presentation and enthusiastic and disciplined in how they presented their music to the public. After all the ‘is jazz finished?’ talk that seems to excise the minds of everyone in the music these days it’s somehow very reassuring to see a bunch of 14-18 year olds who are interested enough in the music to take the time to learn something as challenging as ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’

Terence Blanchard

In the evening we went to see Terence Blanchard’s quintet at the Jazz Standard – something I thoroughly enjoyed. With guys like Blanchard, who because of his gifted youth has been around for so long already, it’s easy to take them for granted. At this point he has such a huge body of work behind him and is recording and writing all the time, it’s easy to underestimate just how exceptional this guy is. This was brought home to me during a blistering set with his quintet in which Blanchard demonstrated what a true improvising virtuoso is, and in which his group, propelled along by Kendrick Scott, explored three pieces in a set that harked back to traditional jazz values. Having just come from the Winter Jazzfest where the eclecticism of contemporary jazz was patently evident and where all kinds of grooves were utilised and influences flaunted, Blanchard’s gig was a nice reminder of how good more traditional jazz can be in the right hands. His band demonstrated again that in the end it’s not really about the material (he finished the set with ‘Autumn Leaves, the hoariest of all hoary old chestnuts), but the imagination and creativity that you bring to it. As a bassist I must say I was really impressed by Joe Sanders, a guy I’d not heard before but who operated in the creative space between the drums and the soloists in a way reminiscent of the way Ron Carter bossed Miles’ quintet in the 60s, but without aping any of his mannerisms. Real creativity in accompaniment and cracking the whip in the rhythm section.

Brazil!


(Cidinho Teixeira, Fabiana, Itaguara Brandao - Zinc Bar)

Whenever I’m in New York on a Sunday, I always go to the Zinc Bar to hear Cindinho Teixeira’s group playing outstanding Brazilian jazz (it’s almost a religious observance for me......). The spirit that’s on display here – and the almost careless virtuosity – is always uplifting, and they play music in the way that I believe it should be played. They always give you the vibe that there is nothing better a person could be doing than playing music. And that’s how it should be – it IS a privilege for us to be playing music, and especially creative music, yet you’d often not know that from our onstage demeanour - shuffling on stage, almost never speaking to the audience, no tune announcements. No wonder ‘civilians’ often feel that attending a jazz gig is like being at a meeting of a secret society........ But not with the Brazilians – they display a wonderful combination of incredible musicianship with an esprit de corps that’s just a pleasure to witness. And of course the music is great too! They’ve been doing this gig on Sunday nights for 15 years, and it shows. Piano, bass, drums and voice with occasional sitters in. Unfortunately the second set was blighted by one of these – the saxophonist Alex Foster who sat in on difficult tunes he patently didn’t know, played overlong solos littered with blues scale clich├ęs, with the microphone rammed into the bell of his horn and generally managed to suck all the life out of every piece he played on. It’s the kind of thing that gives saxophone players a bad name...........


(My new bass)

The New Baby

Apart from the music and the hang, the other major reason for me to go to NYC on this trip was to pick up my beautiful new bass. This was custom built for me by the great luthier Harvey Citron who lives and works in Woodstock. Lindsey was kind enough to drive us up, so we set off in a blizzard and made our way to Harvey’s place and picked up my new baby. It’s a very exciting thing to get a new instrument, especially one as good as this. Once again it’s an acoustic bass guitar, but with a narrower body than my old bass and with more electronic control.

I’ve been exclusively playing my other bass since 1993, so to get a new one at this stage is really something – terra incognita. I was wondering if it would be too different to the one I have and maybe I’d not enjoy playing it as much as I’d hoped. But one quick run up and down the neck of the bass scotched all those fears – it’s a wonderful instrument to play with a great sound, and fits my hand beautifully. What’s interesting to me is how different it is to my other one – because of the narrower body it doesn’t have as loud an acoustic sound as my old bass, and it has more of a feel of a bass guitar than the old one too. The old bass has a lot of upright qualities to it, due to its large body size and lack of any volume or tone buttons on the body – it’s just the sound of the instrument and trying to reproduce that as closely as possible on the amp. With the Citron there’s far more control (bass geek alert!), since it has 2 Piezos and a magnetic pickup so you can move between the acoustic sound to a completely electric sound. I can see myself using both instruments in different settings – the older one for more out-and-out ‘jazz’ settings, and the Citron for other situations.


(Lindsey and I collecting the bass in the middle of a blizzard....)

New York - Beauty and The Beast

So, a week in New York and a good battery charge as always. Looking back on it, the Winter Jazzfest pointed to both the strengths and weaknesses of the NY jazz scene. On the one hand there’s an extraordinary concentration of great musicians in a very small area, making for a hothouse creative atmosphere and an abundance of players on every instrument who play on a very high level. If you’ve got a creative project that you want to do, you will definitely find the right musicians for it in NY. I think that’s especially true of drummers – the amount of great drummers in New York is just scary, I really envy New York musicians the access they have to these drummers.

Being a jazz musician in New York also means being exposed to an endless stream of great gigs too and opportunities to hear some of the best players in the world playing in intimate settings. As a player you can measure yourself against some of the best and this can drive your development and technical abilities (sink or swim!). You can also get opportunities to play with great musicians in informal settings that don’t really exist outside the NY ‘session’ scene. These are all serious plusses for the way things are in New York.

On the minus side it has to be said there are just far too many musicians in New York for it to make any sense on an economic level. The money paid for playing clubs in NY is laughable – there is no way you could make a living by solely performing creative music in New York. The abundance and availability of musicians and the lack of places to play drives the price musicians can charge for NY gigs down to below subsistence levels. It’s a buyers market for the clubs and the musicians suffer. For all the advantages of being cheek by jowl with so many great musicians, there is the reality of the economics of it. A lot of the New York musicians I know work in (often menial) day jobs that have nothing to do with music, and the reality for them is that they’re not going to get out of that situation anytime soon. As they get older and take on responsibilities the typical situation of doing two rehearsals of original music for a gig that pays $30 is revealed for the economic luxury that it is. All that work, all that practice, all that study, all of that creative energy, and in the end you get less than if you’d done a four-hour shift at Dunkin’ Donuts......... The New York jazz scene depends on the willingness of a large percentage of its musicians to put musical value before economic reality. But with performance opportunities shrinking even further, and ever more musicians arriving in New York like gunslingers riding into town to prove themselves, can this model survive?


(Rudresh and I survey the scene....)

And one other aspect of this that I’ve not seen discussed too much is the distortion and depletion of the national jazz scene created by the never ending influx of musicians into New York. The US jazz scene, as a national scene, is almost non-existent. Apart from NY there are some scenes of reasonable size in a few places – Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and maybe a few others. But all of these pale into insignificance beside the bloated New York scene. And this just can’t be healthy for jazz in the US. What you have in the US is one huge scene with far too many musicians and no money, and a series of cities, often with over a million people in them, with virtually no scene at all. If you read any jazz history (and fairly recent history at that) you learn that there were scenes in many cities (Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles etc.) and that each scene had a particular flavour in the way the music was played. There were in fact regional dialects of jazz and there was a touring circuit. There may be still regional ways of playing the music these days (I’m not in a position to say, but outside the New Orleans scene, I suspect not), but the touring circuit is certainly gone. To get an idea of how difficult it is economically to tour in the US, have a look at this.

There is a constant refrain of ‘man, you gotta go to New York’ that’s sung to any player of any ability in the US - it’s held up as the Nirvana for jazz musicians, and that’s perfectly understandable. But the reality is that if a really good player from a regional city leaves that scene, it will be impoverished by his or her leaving. If every major city in the US had a relatively healthy scene, the audience for jazz would be bigger since regional cities would not just depend on the occasional visits by heavy hitters from NY in order to hear some good improvised music, and audiences would grow. Good local players would grow the scenes in these towns and in turn create a touring circuit for other musicians (and themselves).

A good example of this can be seen in Europe – not by any design, but simply by geography and culture. In Europe you have a variety of different and relatively healthy scenes based around different cities. Paris, Berlin, Koln, Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Oslo, London, Barcelona, Rome , Helsinki and Stockholm all have sizeable scenes – none on the scale of New York, but big enough to sustain local musicians and create a touring circuit both for them and for visiting Americans (Europe is still the financial El Dorado for a lot of NY musicians). If a city were to emerge in Europe in which all the activity of the European scene were focussed, in the way that exists in NY, the other city’s scenes would wither and die, just like the regional scenes in so many US cities have withered and died. And the regional dialects of French, Swedish, Italian and German jazz would probably die too along with it.

As a jazz scene New York reminds me of one of those huge edge of town malls that arrives in an area and sucks all the economic life out of the high streets of any town within 50 miles of it. Nearly the entire US scene is based there, and this ‘gotta go to New York’ mentality means that it’s almost impossible for a regional scene to hold on to its good players. They in turn all arrive in New York where they have to scuffle and jostle for financial crumbs.

Let’s imagine that say 30 players of every instrument were to leave NY tomorrow and go back to their home cities and expend their energy there and develop their own scenes there, how much healthier would both those regional scenes be and how much better economically would the New York scene be for giving the musicians there a little more economic room to breathe? I’m not suggesting forced repatriation of all bassists! Nor do I have any solution to the problem as I see it – it is what it is and it’s hard to see, for lots of reasons, how it will ever be any other way. I’m just making the point that the huge concentration of musicians in New York is definitely not an unreservedly healthy thing – yes it provides an incredible level of musicianship and creative music, but at what cost to the musicians and the national scene?

New York has always been great for jazz, and always will be. I just wonder how long more can the musicians pay the real-life price for that greatness?

15 comments:

  1. Wow. This is an amazing post, Ronan! Really well crafted and thought out, both as far as your trip recap and your thoughts on NYC and US jazz.

    I would only like to add that I believe the tide is shifting somewhat, at least from my vantage point. I live in Seattle, which has an amazingly diverse and active scene (recently featured by Nate Chenin in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/arts/music/29seattle.html). While it's true that many of the younger musicians do leave for college in NYC, and some post-college musicians try to "make it there", many of those have recently chosen to come back home. Thomas Marriott, Mark Taylor, Geoff Harper, David Marriott, Matt Jorgensen and Coung Vu and many other all left and came back. And many other amazing cats have been here all along, including Jay Thomas, Marc Seales, Randy Halberstadt, Evan Flory-Barnes...the list goes on.

    At least here in Seattle I have noticed a shift in recent years from "man, I gotta go to NYC", to "we have everything we need right here". I do hope that continues, and manifests in other areas of the country.

    Thanks for the great read this morning!

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  2. Really good points about NYC's sapping effect on the US scene, and reminiscent of my own struggles there. My 2 cents: http://bit.ly/fmZgWr

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  3. Thanks Ian, Jason!

    It's interesting to hear from both of you since I'm obviously someone outside looking in on the US scene whereas you guys are working and living in it. And it's great to hear from two guys who ARE working in the regional scene rather than the monolith of NY.

    I'm glad the points I made had some resonance with you Ian, I can imagine that unless you catch a lucky break, NY could have a really debilitating effect on one's creative energy as the economic reality takes its toll.

    Jason it sounds like you guys in Seattle have a good thing going! If every major city in the US had a real scene I really do believe that the US jazz scene as a whole would be much healthier

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  4. Yeah, San Francisco/Oakland/Bay Area has a great scene. Lots of latin music too, salsa, funk, blues, Brazilian, Haitian, R&B -- and our own sound. Latin rock, Tower of Power influences. The longer you work here the deeper you realize it is. And the cool thing is the jazz cats get to play everything because we know how to read, comp and play difficult rhythms.

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  5. Since people are talking about the scenes in their cities, I'll mention Boston. I can only say-it's weird here. Because of the huge music education infrastructure, many great players come here. Relatively few stay-mostly those who can make it work by teaching. Funny how it's equilibrated. There are many free concerts at N.E.C. and Berklee-wonderful, but it means those colleges seldom support activity outside their walls.

    A semi-thriving scene exists on the margins, albeit with low bread and small houses. A few mainstream joints exist for the big traveling acts and a few of the stauncher local ones.

    I don't think getting people(back)here from NYC would make much difference. There are already too many musicians for too few jobs. Now, if you could run free buses, monorails, whatever, to the suburbs and get the enormous suburban boomer population into town to the clubs, you'd have something.

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  6. Doh! The secret's out...(and this isn't a bad thing either)

    Whenever, I'm in New York I always make a point of catching Cindinho Teixeira's steady gig at the Zinc Bar.

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  7. Steve has a point. The more I think about it, the ones who need to be forcibly repatriated are the audiences.

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  8. Ronan, this is an excellent blog entry that had to be said. And extremely well put. Your point about local scenes not having regional flavor anymore is untrue however. It is true that the "jazz education industrial complex" has homogenized everything to a certain degree but the Chicago and LA and SF scenes definitely retain their own distinct vibe. Sorry I didn't get to hand off those CDs to you. I have a box of like 200 sitting right next to me. If the label won't send you some, I can send you 5 or 10.

    Steve, most people from the suburbs like to ride in these contraptions they own called cars. All the free monorails and buses in the world will not change that preference. It seems that a $4 gallon of gas won't even change that.

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  9. Great post. Glad to see that others are beginning to see the problems with the NY jazz scene. Im a vibes player that spent two years in Brooklyn and just recently moved back to Seattle. So many reasons led to that decision but musically Seattle is so much more cohesive and honestly, per capita, has more folks interested in actually hearing modern creative jazz. Yah festivals would draw crowds in NY but clubs were dry most days of the week, aside from your historical haunts that were helped immensely by tourists.

    I remember talking with my friend Evan before I moved and his comment being, we need to build Seattle jazz up, not NY. I understand fully what he means now. Very few people in NY were from NY and this led to no one wanting to build anything. No one wanted to lay roots down.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts out there Ronan.

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  11. How about if we offered free booze in the monorails, and maybe piped in ganga smoke?

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  12. Great thoughts, Ronan! I live in Rochester, NY and have found Steve's comments about big education infrastructure and not a lot of support to the performances outside that environment to be true here as well. There are some truly world-class performers here who do play out regularly (mostly associated with Eastman), but it's really hard to get support from the student community and greater populous to come see live music. Since there's also the pull for really talented students to go 'make it in NYC', it's tricky to cultivate a young scene and get them to buy into staying around. I think that a lot of the older players are fed up with dealing with low-paying gigs or getting undercut by people who will play for beer. There are opportunities to make a living playing and teaching (I do), but the music community is pretty hard to get organized and convinced to 'lay roots down', as Justin said.

    Good to hear that Seattle's doing well, I'm from Washington and had heard from some friends that it was stagnating a couple years ago.

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  13. Cuong - you removed the post? I thought it had some great points! I really liked your observations regarding the different problems faced by the big and small scenes. I might have a think about that and write more about it at some point. Thanks for writing anyway.

    And thanks Justin - it does seem that Seattle is on the move, since three different people have written to say so. That's great - and there seems to be some movement in San Francisco etc. - if that could be replicated in 10 or 20 cities then I think the national scene would be so much better for everybody. I really hope that happens.

    Thanks for all the responses everybody - I appreciate you taking the time to write and making such good and interesting observations

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  14. Enjoyed this post! I would point out however that any comparisons between the US and European scenes should address the fact that European venues generally receive financial assistance while US venues generally do not. I think pretty much any conversation about jazz has to be understood in those terms.

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  15. Hi Ellery - yes it's true that the economics of the European and US scenes are completely different. However I wasn't really making a comparison between the economics of the two scenes, I was just pointing out that there is a regional circuit in European cities which supports lots of activity for the local guys as well as the touring circuit.

    The economics of the European scene IS largely dependent on subsidy, but I don't think that's the reason for the regional scenes in those cities - that has to do with the amount of different languages and peoples who are packed into a very small geographical space. It's an accident of geography and history - a lucky accident for the health of the European jazz scene! The economics and relative health of the European and US jazz scenes? That's a whole other (and huge) discussion!

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