Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Monk: “Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Himself” (Riverside)

August 26, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

Thelonious Monk has been labeled “The High Priest of Bebop.” Yes, Monk’s contributions to the bebop era were essential in the development of the music. But Monk was so much more than that. No one played piano like him or thought the way he did when composing or covering even the most popular standards from the American songbook. I don’t like to categorize Monk’s music other than it being Monk’s music; a genre unto itself.

More people play Monk’s compositions today that any other composer in the history of jazz. He’s still my favorite musician and composer in the history of American music. Monk never adhered to the ever changing trends in jazz that took place during his lifetime. He always remained true to his own vision. There are no Monk “fusion” albums or Monk playing “free-form” or trying to please a rock n’ roll audience. Monk’s music was and still is modern and he never had to try too hard to sound that way.

One of the most chillingly intimate recordings Monk ever made was Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself on the Riverside label, recorded on April 12th and 16th of 1957. This is a solo piano album, with the exception of “Monk’s Mood,” which features John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware from Monk’s infamous Five Spot Band of that same year.

On “April In Paris,” “(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and “I Should Care,” you get the impression that you’re witnessing a man whose sole purpose in life was to play music and to do so his own way and that everything else in his life were mere distractions. The voicings on these standards are so special and brilliant. Monk’s harmonies were and still are unique to this day. His use of pedal tones and dissonant chords altered the way jazz musicians heard and played their instruments.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

No one else dared to play these compositions this way. At the time of this recording, it was considered sacrileges to alter these harmonies so drastically. Up until 1956, Monk was often dismissed as an eccentric and nothing more by some critics and jazz aficionados. His relationship with Riverside Records (and later with Columbia Records) helped to change that forever. Musicians like Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins (who was the first to put Monk on record) Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey all knew he was a genius; the rest of the world took a little longer to discover this for themselves.

“Functional” is a stride blues. Monk’s sense of dynamics and spacing makes this piece like no other stride blues you’ve ever heard. Monk was inspired by such stride piano greats as James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and you can hear tiny traces of those players here, but Monk’s own personality shines through the brightest.

The highlight of the album is Monk doing take after take of his classic “’Round Midnight,” with false starts, breakdowns, studio banter between Monk and Orrin Keepnews, and incomplete takes, lasting over 20 minutes. Each attempt is harmonically different than the last. What you get to hear is a genius and perfectionist pushing and searching within himself for something magical, and often sounding frustrated. All of the takes are magical but Monk’s standards were as high as his level of creativity. It also had to be right for his fans. As complex as Monk’s compositions are from a technical standpoint, his melodies are extremely accessible. You can whistle or hum his melodies very easily in the shower. That dichotomy is what made Monk so amazing. There finally is a complete take of “’Round Midnight” that is breathtaking.

Thelonious Monk

Monk’s take on Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” is so mournful and sincere. When Monk would cover a song, he would understand it completely, the lyrics, the meaning, everything. Monk never made an insincere move during his career. This is harrowing music. Every note and chord has purpose. Monk was never one to thoughtlessly toss his chops around. Duke Ellington’s influence can be heard in Monk’s more delicate nuances.

The album ends with “Monk’s Mood” with John Coltrane on tenor sax and Wilbur Ware on bass. This is the darkest, most beautiful rendition of “Monk’s Mood” ever recorded. Coltrane plays much more thematically than usual, not straying too far from the melody line as he solos briefly. Ware’s bass lines are thoughtful and precise. Monk’s attack on the piano is delicate and less percussive than on the previous selections. With just a piano, tenor sax, and bass, the effect is far more dramatic than if a drummer had been added. Monk knew this would result in something special and timeless.

Thelonious Monk-Thelonious Himself is a clear glimpse into a very intimate session by one of the greatest artists in the history of the American music. Music doesn’t get any better than this.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Record Rack: Halie Loren and The Monks of Norcia

June 30, 2015

Brian Arsenault

by Brian Arsenault

Soul Music
Secular and Sacred or
Sacred and Sublime

Halie Loren: Butterfly Blue (Justin Time Records)

Halie Loren glides in flight on her new album Butterfly Blue from newly composed musical poetry to the songbook of American music on the wings of a deepening and darkening musical sense, an extraordinary accompanying group of musicians and a voice to wring out all the passion, pain and promise of living. We are captives of the cages of our lives but the spirit still soars.

The new:

“Blue” by sterling guitarist Daniel Gallo, “blue like the deep sea . . . blue like a moonbeam.”     Delicate without sentimentality, painful but not maudlin. Gallo’s guitar masterfully weaves under Loren’s voice.

“Butterfly” by Loren herself, wherein I think Otis Redding held her hand. I thought he might harmonize on the chorus and perhaps he does somewhere else.

“After the Fall” again by Gallo. Paper Moons hang, funny Valentines bring a tear. Songs of life remembered, a soundtrack of a life.

The classic:
Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”, sung mostly in French and the more romantic for that. Loren’s voice haunts, evokes all the lyrical romance of the tune. Matt Treder’s piano and David Larsen’s clarinet so perfect in creating the cafe sensibility in play. Mark Schneider’s bass simply perfect.
“Stormy Weather” touches the very center of that blues piece, slowed down achingly beyond any version you’ve heard before.

Billie Holiday would approve. Ellington could have arranged.
And a bit later, back to back to back, my favorite moments on the album.
A playful yet deeply felt “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with Irving Berlin’s wonderful, hopeful lyrics. Again Larsen, this time on baritone sax, would be worth the trip just on his own. And Halie’s phrasing, I think she knew Berlin in an earlier life.

She has also somehow magically visited Cole Porter. “Under My Skin” is launched by a fine instrumental intro with Treder and Schneider leading the way before Loren’s breathy vocal comes in with just a touch of Peggy Lee. All that Porter longing, the pain/pleasure of being caught with no release and maybe none wanted.

On the Loren penned “Danger in Loving You,” heard in a performance version on an earlier recording, she writes to the level of Gershwin and Porter. There’s no release here either. There is of course danger to the heart.

Halie Loren is generally termed a jazz singer and that’s true if you acknowledge that blues underlies jazz, which of course it does. Then there is soul, she has that too. Ask me to walk into a club and conjure up my singer of choice and it would be Halie Loren.

To bend a lyric in “Blue” just a bit, I love her like Sunday.

* * * * * * * *

The Monks of Norcia Benedicta: Marian chant from Norcia (De Montfort Music)

I’ve never been interested in meditation. That’s why I didn’t care that much for “Peace,” the last cut on Halie’s album. I’m generally annoyed with all that find your center, peace out stuff. I’m entitled to my tension and my anger. Wars aren’t won and great art isn’t created by navel gazing.

Monks of Norcea Benedictus CDYet if I was going to meditate it would be to the immortal Gregorian chants of these monks in Umbria (Italy). In fact, while I had it on I began to feel more peaceful, more in tune, as they say. That annoyed me so much that I almost turned it off, but the beauty of the prayerfulness held me. Many I know who still attend Mass say that changing from Latin to English diminished its spiritual power. I can now say I think they are right.

I’m made to understand that the monks are killing (forgive the word) on the classical charts, even outselling some pop stars, and I can see why. Benedicta, largely in tribute to Mary (I don’t need to say which Mary do I), seems to echo down the ages from a time of believing, we’re talking 10th century here. Perhaps that is part of the attraction in this age of unbelieving, at least in the modern West.

Wherever you fall on or off the spiritual scale, beauty so rich and full is not to be discounted. Ever. The Monks of Norcia are also renowned for their craft brews, a spirit also not to be discounted.

CD Review: Lena Seikaly’s “Looking Back”

April 23, 2015

“A perfectly wonderful jazz vocal album”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

A classically trained mezzo-soprano who swings? Yes – and her name is Lena Seikaly. Although only 25, she is an established composer who has written many classical and jazz arrangements for small ensembles, choirs and full orchestra. She is also an educator, a successful teacher of jazz and classical voice.

But I wish to focus on that rich voice. Whatever your vocal criteria – quality of sound, intonation, phrasing, handling of time – Seikaly excels. She is a smart, sophisticated vocalist for grown ups.

Lena Seikaly

Lena Seikaly


If justice does exist, Looking Back, her third self-produced CD, should make the Washington D.C.-based Seikaly a star. Although it was released a year and a half ago, it is fresh on the national scene and worthy of more attention.  Seikaly has it all, a luxuriant rich voice with a melted-butter vibrato, a feeling for jazz, a deft sense of swing, effortless delivery, stunning presentation and a Rolls-Royce quartet providing her accompaniment. Just as importantly, she projects an unaffected honesty and joy.

Like many of the better singers, Seikaly also has an impeccable repertoire. Three ballads immediately grabbed my attention. Her easy patient way with “Baby, What Else Can I Do” is downright ecstatic. Is this seldom-heard Walter Hirsch-Gerald Marks collaboration truly a great song or is her sensuous delivery seducing my ear? Either way, the 5-minute cut alone is worth the price of the CD.

I have not heard a better rendition of Harold Arlen’s dramatic 1933 “I Cover the Waterfront.” Seikaly nicely includes his well-written but seldom heard verse and deftly handles the four octave jumps. The marvelous and sad “Supper Time” is certainly one of Irving Berlin’s greatest ballads particularly that long 16-measure bridge. Seikaly brings this cry of anguish to vibrant life.

She also swings delightfully and is even the scat’s meow. Mel Torme once said something like “a little scatting goes a long way.” It seems that every new jazz-influenced singer feels a need to scat, whether they have a facility for this vocal art form or not. Fortunately Seikaly’s scatting is subtle and as true as an oboe and she nicely uses this vocal technique judiciously. For example, on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and Duke Ellington’s “I Love You Madly” she is in lockstep with Zach Pride’s bass. Like an experienced lover, Siekaly initially takes her time with Benny Davis’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and then, with effective use of dynamics swings and scats the subsequent choruses. Drummer Lenny Robison displays his talents on this cut.

This is certainly Seikaly’s CD but she benefits immeasurably from the seamless interaction with her group. Pianist Chris Grasso, whether swinging or laying down tasty chords is superb. Bassist Zach Pride has a sound with depth and authenticity, something you want to reach out and touch. Guitarist Paul Pieper talents are very much evident on such cuts as Richard Whiting’s beloved standard “Guilty.” Speaking of this cut, you may notice that Seikaly’s Looking Back is somewhat a tribute to vocalists Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.

Maybe it’s the water or the climate. Whatever the reason, the DC-Maryland area seems to have had more than it’s share of superior vocalists. Just to cite two examples, in the 1970s-80s there was the sublime Shirley Horn. In the ’90s – for too short a time – there was the genre-defying, captivating Eva Cassidy. Those two are stellar company and now we can add Lena Seikaly to this illustrious duo.

She has a natural, relaxed voice and was born to sing. Her warm timbre and uncomplicated phrasing are notable for their ease and expressiveness. You understand every word she sings and, given her selections on this CD, the lyrics deserve to be heard.  Looking Back is a perfect jazz vocal album. If that sounds too reverent, let me change the praise to “perfectly wonderful.” I’m already looking forward to her next release. For more information on background and recordings, click HERE to visit Seikaly’s website.

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To read more about Roger Crane, the Song Scout, click HERE.

Live Music: Steve Tyrell at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

March 29, 2014

By Don Heckman

Bel Air.  Mention an area of the music world and Steve Tyrell has been there and done that. Whether it’s from a business perspective, running a record company or producing albums by major artists, or if it’s in the creative arena, clearly establishing his own identity as a performer Tyrell knows how to do it.

On Wednesday night at Herb Alpert’s Bel Air club – Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. – Tyrell displayed the vocal artistry he has developed as a master interpreter of the Great American Songbook.

The Songbook, of course, with its extraordinary collection of works reaching from Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern and beyond, has been the foundation for the careers of numerous singers. But Tyrell’s far-reaching interpretive skills have brought new perspectives to this rich catalog of material.

Performing with the skillful backing of a stellar band of players, Tyrell was at his best.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz...etc.

Steve Tyrell and his Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

Among the rich list of songs he sang, every selection was memorable. Starting with “I’ll Take Romance,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” he proceeded with classics such as “I Can’t Get Started,” “I Get A Kick Out of You” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “This Guy’s In Love With You” and a climactic “Stand By Me.”

He introduced most of the songs with a few insightful comments about the songwriters. On some, he often included the usually omitted verses of the songs. And he frequently added fascinating anecdotes providing intriguing insight into a song’s history.

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell

But the real evaluation of Tyrell’s performance has to mention what he brought to both the music and the lyrics of every song he sang. Tyrell is often praised for the appeal of his warm, Texas accent, brisk rhythmic swing and easygoing on stage manner.

Add to that, however, his innate skills as a musical story teller. In song after song, he blended his jazz-driven phrasing with a thoughtful interpretive ability. The result was the opportunity to experience a musical poet in action, finding the most gripping lyrical moments in every song he touched.

So call it an evening showcasing the best of American song, rendered with complete creative authenticity. And listening to Steve Tyrell’s performance one couldn’t help but imagine how delighted the legion of American Songbook composers might have been to hear their musical brilliance evoked with such care and enthusiasm.

* * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.



Live Jazz: Jane Monheit at Catalina Bar & Grill

December 29, 2013

By Don Heckman

Jane Monheit’s in town again this week for another of her holiday season visits.  She opened at Catalina Bar & Grill on Friday, continued on Saturday and will also perform at the club tonight (Sunday) and Monday, finishing up Tuesday with a New Year’s Eve appearance. And that’s great news for fans of prime jazz vocalizing.

Monheit’s first real visibility in the jazz community took place in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute’s Vocal Competition, when – at 21 – she was the first runner-up to veteran singer Teri Thornton in a field of competitors that also included Tierney Sutton and Roberta Gambarini.

Jane Monheit and RIck Montalbano

Jane Monheit and RIck Montalbano

She’s released a dozen or so recordings since then, and received a pair of Grammy nominations.  But as appealing as all of her CDs have been, there’s nothing like hearing – and seeing – Monheit perform live, especially with the solid backing of her trio: pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and her husband, Rick Montalbano, on drums. Each of the frequent performances she’s done at Catalina Bar & Grill over the past few years has been both unique and memorable. And this one was no exception.

Call it a Great American Songbook set, a program of familiar classics, starting with Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” and concluding with Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” And we can’t overlook the equally memorable “I Was Born To Be Blue,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Never Let Me Go.”

Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit

Add to that Monheit’s reference to what she described as the jazz aspects of Judy Garland via a richly blended medley of “The Boy Next Door” and “The Man That Got Away.”

All of the above titles are essential elements in the repertoire of most jazz and adult contemporary singers. But the real question lies in what a singer does with such classic items. And Monheit has thoroughly established herself over the past decade as one of the prime imaginative singers of the current music world.

Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit

In song after song, Monheit’s Saturday night program unfolded with the gripping expressiveness of a true musical story teller. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, she employed all her vocal skills – a far-reaching range, variable tonal qualities, briskly swinging rhythmic articulation and penetrating emotional intensity – at the service of her interpretations. Topping it off, she dipped into some scat singing on a few tunes, delivered with an inventiveness that would probably have delighted Ella Fitzgerald.

Call it a great evening of music for every member of Monheit’s enthusiastic audience. But I couldn’t help but feel that this was a performance that should be heard by other singers, too – a performance with sufficient creative information to aid anyone with ambitions for a vocal career. With three more performances this week, Catalina’s should draw more full houses to her seminars in the art of expressive vocalizing.

 * * * * * * * *

Photos by Faith Frenz.

Record Rack: Lyn Stanley, Lisa Engelken

December 11, 2013

Of West Coast Girls

By Brian Arsenault

The Left Coast is not taken seriously enough by the New York centric jazz “world” as a producer of any jazz, but maybe particularly female jazz singers. Of course, Queen Bentyne is based there now but she’s late of Manhattan Transfer so the East Coast still claims her.

So here come two very different talents to turn our eyes and ears to the West. You know, LA, San Francisco. The places that mostly stay warm but are oh so cool.

 Lyn Stanley

Lost in Romance (A.T. Music)

Only a few tracks are required for the listener to be Lost in Romance with Lyn Stanley. I was there by “The Nearness of You.” By then, she has warmed the room with a series of classics from Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael.

The room is in a small club. Perhaps near the desert. Dim lighting. Bogie and Bacall unobtrusive in the back of the room. Dietrich’s set over, she stays to listen.

The room has a piano that accompanies her so well whenever Tamir Hendelman or Mike Lang sit in. Tenor sax (Bob Sheppard), trombone (Bob McChesney), flugelhorn (Gilbert Castellanos, also on trumpet) in the backing group which plays every note to complement her. Every single note.

And those notes are all full and rounded, almost never sharp and stinging. Perhaps vinyl was required for the richness throughout. I’d like to think so. (two 180 gram 45 rpm albums which I first tried to play as 33s. Slowwwwwwwww. Also available in CDs and downloads for the unromantic.)

The striking blond former ballroom dancer opens and closes the album with songs entwined with dance.

First: “Change Partners,” where she lingers over each note, each moment, seeking her chance.

Last, naturally: “The Last Dance,” where the partner has been found and the evening is regrettably ending but “keep holding me tight.”

In between, the bartender leans in to listen as she asks for “One More for My Baby.” Each word, each inflection so important as “You Go to My Head.”

Her phrasing is close, intimate, personal. Not like Sinatra’s phrasing but with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ requirement that you listen to the story, that you feel it might be sung directly to you.

I don’t think her talents are best suited for Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” but she shines on George Harrison’s “Something” which Sinatra called the only really good love song in eons.

On “Fever”, the warmth becomes heat. Peggy Lee may have been the first white girl singer so openly sexual but Lyn Stanley takes it a bit sultrier, plays with it a bit. A touch of how Marilyn would have sung it. Finger snaps as percussion.

Another strength of vinyl; each time you get to flip the album or put on the second disc (may I say record), you’ll be pleased there’s another side. You’ll wish you were at that imaginary club that night. But go ahead, careful not to smudge the grooves, put on the album and soon you will be.

Lisa Engelken

little warrior (CD Baby)

If Lyn Stanley is the epitome of classic romance and the classic American songbook, Lisa Engelken is the postmodernist purveyor of pain and alienation.

. . . for there must be a god to exist such a godless man. . .”

If Lyn Stanley rounds each note and lingers for its full effect, Lisa Engelken frequently blows through lyrics with staccato phrasing. Everything at times is a single chopped note since she must move on and not linger.

send me keys

send me jets

send me trains . . .

and don’t forget instructions as to what to do with your remains”

Don’t get me wrong. Lisa’s range of emotions, as well as octaves, is extensive. The album includes the reflective “little warrior” title song and Chick Corea’s gently rolling “sea journey.”

But pain is near at all times. It’s integral to her art.

blue valentines” is Tom Wait via Billie Holiday (can’t beat that for melancholy) through Lisa. The band gets it. Bill Cantos’ piano chords keep a somber pace. Sam Bevan’s bass descends with her voice. Sadness keeps a grip impervious to whiskey.

She moves with Joni Mitchell’s “cold blue steel & sweet fire” to some very personal hell vision of “. . . vicious gnawing in the veins. . .” This seven minutes, a dark trip, is orchestral, at times symphonic — Lisa says she wants to sing it with the San Francisco Symphony — but some of the musicians may have hooves and tails, maybe even horns.

Even in the supposedly upbeat “viva la felicita,” an alleged ode to happiness, the chorus in Italian is “eh poi, eh poi?” what else, what else is there? Can’t get more post modernist than that. Like an Italo Calvino short story.

For this album to end on the sweetness of “All I Do Is Dream of You” is either ironic or an inside joke. This is a singer pushing some boundaries and a long way from romance. But we know the World needs more than one vision.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Live Music: Lyn Stanley at Catalina Bar & Grill

August 28, 2013

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  A celebration of the release of a new CD is a fairly common event at music clubs around town. It is, after all, the chance to attract a presumably supportive roomful of fans and friends. Followed by the opportunity to have the new CD signed personally by the artist.

Singer Lyn Stanley’s appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesdy night was publicized as just such a CD release party for her new album, Lost in Romance.

As it turned out, it was all that and more.

The program, which was emceed by the inimitible wit and wisdom of KJAZ radio personality Bubba Jackson, actually consisted of three distinct segments.

The first belonged completely to Stanley and her musicians, as she offered a virtual banquet of songs from the new CD. As a former competitive ballroom dancer, her program reflected the dance aspects that continue to play a prominent role in her music career, as well. And it was no surprise that both the CD and her live performance began with the Irving Berlin song Change Partners” and wound up with Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Last Dance.”

Lyn Stanley

Lyn Stanley

But that was just the beginning of a string of songs from the CD’s program of far-ranging selections from the Great American songbook. Among the numerous appealing album selections explored by Stanley were “Fever,” “The Nearness of You,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and the whimsical “What Am I Gonna Do With A Bad Boy Like You,” all sung with the enthusiasm of a vocalist eager to establish her own musical identity.

She was backed by a stellar collection of players that included pianists Mike Lang, Tamir Hendelman and Llew Mathews, bassists Jim DeJulio and Dominic Genova, drummer Bernie Dressel. guitarist Grant Geissman, trombonist Bob McChesney and tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, conducted by the album’s producer Steve Rawlins.

That’s as prime a line-up of accompanying musicians as any singer could hope to have. And to Stanley’s credit, she made the most of their melodically supportive, rhythmically swinging back-up.

Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich

Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich

The program’s second segment further underscored her continuing involvement with ballroom dancing. At one side of the stage, a small area was set aside as a dance stage.

And, for several fascinating interactive songs, Stanley’s singing and her musicians’ playing provided the perfect accompaniment for dance numbers by the Russian duo of Latin dance world champions Maria Nikolishina and Nikolai Vononovich.

Both of the dancers were remarkably attractive, moving with the the grace of ballet artistry and the ease of superb athletes. Interacting with Stanley’s vocals, the combination recalled the inextricable and compelling linkages that have always existed between dance and music.

The final segment of the program was a tribute to the late pianist Paul Smith and his wife, singer and teacher Annette Warren Smith, both of whom were deeply supportive of Stanley’s nascent career as it began to blossom. Mixing a few of Stanley’s vocal versions of tunes favored by Smith with several instrumentals recalling Smith’s long history as a much favored, prominent Los Angeles pianist, the segment provided yet another overview of Stanley’s transformative vocal career.

Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for Lyn Stanley’s Lost In Romance before I heard heard her perform live. But her abilities were nonetheless fully apparent on the album – and completely confirmed by this memorable appearance at Catalina’s.

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Photos by Faith Frenz.


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