Seldom-seen tenor player Stone-Lonergan has earned himself an awesome reputation among his fellow London musicians, and those jazz fans who’ve caught him on the rare occasions that he’s emerged to lead a band before the general public. Last November’s EFG Jazz Festival saw him break cover to delight a buzzing crowd at the Vortex, and here he is again, rounding off the decade for the Verdict in Brighton in a reunion with his old running mate Dave Drake on piano. The band hit the ground running with 'Lonnie’s Lament', Stone-Lonergan's imposing presence leading the charge as Tim Thornton on bass and Chris Draper on drums set up a ferociously intense, effortlessly responsive groove. 'I Thought About You' is pitched slower, but the band attack the old standard with equal gusto. Riley delivers an unceasing flow of ideas that are Young at heart but never corny, adventurous in conception but always reaching back to the melodic core. Drake picks up the baton, evoking older stylists like Errol Garner or Ellington in his two-handed chords but with an eccentric rhythmic twist and sense of space that is all his own. Thornton’s solo moves from Milt Hinton fundamentals to flamboyant high-register virtuosity, with each phrase perfectly turned. Rarely played Monk composition ‘Bye-Ya’ is the perfect vehicle for Drakes angular, almost cartoonish imagination, and Stone-Lonergan’s tough-talking solo swings from abstract harmonic matrices to down-home licks and resolves into nagging single-note cries. 'My One And Only Love' is a masterpiece of interpretation: Drake’s statement rich in chordal voices building and almost dissolving into dissonance, Riley supplying a controlled distillation of pure emotion in the theme and exploring the furthest reaches of the melody over an insistent pedal from Thornton before a hushed reprise. ‘All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm’ is a super-fast burner with Draper showing off his skills with a wealth of preternaturally controlled, subtly-shifting ride patterns, uniting with Thornton to pull the groove apart then stick it back together.
The second set continues the mission to explore and to revitalise. ‘Slowboat To China’ is a lighthearted romp over Draper’s four-to-the-floor ballroom stomp: ‘Juju’ really gets the treatment, a stark, totally spontaneous and totally original reworking over a bass pulse and rippling, glitchy piano arpeggios that builds to a colossal climax: ‘Passport’ is an exercise in deconstructed bop where everyone finds plenty original to say, with Drake taking us from stride to the avante-garde and Draper finishing with some tasty trades. Drake’s solo on the oasis of calm that is ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good’ underscores his affinity to Ellington the pianist as well as Ellington the composer – a relatively overlooked facet of the Duke’s genius that isn’t often apparent as an influence in today’s young pianists. ‘Asiatic Raes’ has the Thornton/Draper team throwing around some outrageous beat displacement tricks: Drake sets up a filigree of tumbling notes and Riley brings it back home with a barnstorming solo.
The Verdict crowd are connoisseurs of exactly this kind of open-ended blowing session and recognise an exceptional example when they hear one. Thornton and Draper are an outstanding rhythm team, as fierce, subtle, swinging or adventurous as the occasion demands, and Thornton especially belongs to the tradition of extravagant virtuosi without compromising on groove. But what really sets this apart is the commitment evident in every contribution from both Drake and Stone-Lonergan. Neither of them deal in cliches: each loads every statement with a cargo of emotional honesty that’s not often found in the familiar standards quartet. Stone-Lonergan’s big, generous tone and unfailing response to the gravitational pull of melody invests even his most challenging explorations with an emotional directness that’s utterly compelling to experience.