Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019



Zenel, Music Spoken Here, The Marr’s Bar, Worcester, 22/06/2023.

Photography: Photograph by Jane Branigan

by Ian Mann

June 24, 2023


The audience responded enthusiastically to Zenel’s blend of jazz and contemporary electronic dance rhythms and the enthusiasm and skill of the young band was plain to see.

Zenel, Music Spoken Here, The Marr’s Bar, Worcester, 22/06/2023.

Laurence Wilkins – trumpet, guitar, electronics, Jay Verma – keyboards, Alex Wilson – keyboards, Zoe Pascal – drums

Music Spoken Here’s event for June featured the young London based quartet Zenel. Promoter Dave Fuller had seen the band on a couple of occasions on his regular trips to the capital and was determined to bring them to Worcester.

Apart from Dave I suspect that my wife and I were the only other audience members to have seen the group play live before. Back in 2016 we saw Zenel at the Iklectik Art Lab in Waterloo at a JazzNewBlood showcase that formed part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. I was very much looking forward to catching up with them again.

At that time the group was a trio featuring Wilkins, Pascal and keyboard player Noah Stoneman, the band having taken its name from the initial letters of the first names of its members – Zoe, Noah and Laurence. Stoneman, once a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition may have moved on, but the Zenel band name remains.

Back in 2016 the members of Zenel were still teenagers but it was evident even then that they were outstanding musicians. The same could also be said of the two other groups that shared that 2016 triple bill, with the musicians of both Triforce and Kokoroko also making waves and going on to bigger things.

The JazzNewBlood programme is co-ordinated by Patricia Pascal, mother of Zenel’s drummer Zoe, and she also works for Tomorrow’s Warriors. I’ve seen a number of other JazzNewBlood showcases at Iklectik over the years and can confirm that the organisation’s mission statement to  “nurture youth jazz talent” is certainly being fulfilled. My account of Zenel’s 2016 performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

In 2020 the original version of Zenel released the digital album “Extreme Sports”, which contains some of the pieces we heard at Iklectik. It is still available from the group’s Bandcamp page.

By the time of 2023’s “Zenel 5ive”, a digital EP release for the Jazz Re;Freshed imprint, the line up had changed, with Stoneman replaced by not one, but two keyboard players, Jay Verma and Alex Wilson. The presence of two sets of keyboards plus Wilkin’s electronics has expanded the band’s sonic palette. Since the EP’s release Wilkins has added guitar to his armoury and that instrument was to be heard on some numbers tonight, although his main form of expression remains the trumpet. The new EP is also available via Zenel’s Bandcamp page, as are a number of individual digital tracks. Link here;

The individual members of Zenel are also making their mark elsewhere. The 2017 edition of EFG LJF saw Zoe Pascal leading his own quartet at that year’s JazzNewBlood Showcase. He was joined by saxophonist Quinn Oulton, pianist Jonah Grimbly-Larrington and bassist Hamish Nockalls-More, with Laurence Wilkins making a cameo appearance on trumpet. The programme included a mix of Pascal’s original compositions and tunes by such jazz composers as Don Grolnick and Thelonious Monk. The same showcase had previously featured Wilkins playing trumpet as a member of saxophonist Sam Barnett’s quintet. He also appears on Barnett’s début album “The New York – London Suite”, released in 2017. Review of the 2017 JazzNewBlood showcase here;

More recently Pascal made an outstanding contribution to saxophonist and composer Duncan Eagles’ new album “Narrations”. Review here;

Meanwhile Verma has worked with vocalists Luca Manning and Maya Caskie.

Zenel describe their music as;
“Utilising a unique approach to computer-based performance, allowing them to create a poetic combination of jazz improvisation and electronic music. Their style is centred around sounds seldom heard in live band contexts, drawing upon a plethora of electronic production styles including grime, UK drill, afrobeats and future bass”.

Hmmm… as an older listener I have to admit to not understanding every aspect of that, but I’ll run with it. To these ears Zenel’s music embraces jazz, electronica, hip hop and its numerous modern variants, and at times I’ve detected a bit of old school prog rock in there, although that may not have been entirely intentional from the band’s standpoint! Essentially it’s a kind of ‘fusion’, which fits in neatly with the Music Spoken Here ethos and it’s still music that the more mature listener can relate to and enjoy. Zenel make inventive use of the technology at their disposal and I really like their sound and their approach.

The hot summer weather conspired to keep listeners away and crowd numbers were down on recent MSH events. Nevertheless the audience that was there responded enthusiastically to Zenel’s music as the group played a single uninterrupted set, rather than taking the usual interval. This was occasioned by the fact that they had travelled to Worcester by rail and needed an early finish to enable them to get the last train back to London. I assume Pascal was playing a hire kit but the band still had a lot of equipment, plus themselves, to get back to London. I didn’t envy them playing a gig and then having to lug their gear back to London, especially in that heat. Oh, the glamour of the jazz life!

Not all of the numbers were announced, and some of the newer compositions were still untitled, so this won’t be the usual precise tune by tune account but more of a general impression of Zenel’s performance.

The opening number featured a mix of hip hop grooves and trumpet melody with the two keyboards combining to fulfil both rhythmic and textural functions, with the bass lines being shared around by Verma and Wilson. Flanked by the keyboard players and with Pascal’s drum kit just behind him Wilkins was effectively the front man and also handled the announcing duties, courteously, but also a little reluctantly I suspect. The quality of his trumpet soloing revealed why he is in such demand in more straight ahead jazz contexts such as the Barnett quintet and the Royal Academy of Music Big Band. This first piece saw him sharing the solos with Verma, an able and inventive soloist who was playing an Alesis 61 keyboard.

From the “5ives” EP came “Laser Beam”, with its off kilter funk grooves and rich blend of keyboard sounds, variously replicating synth, organ and electric piano. Wilkins was to feature once more as a trumpet soloist, followed by Wilson who was playing two manuals, although I couldn’t get a good view of the manufacturer’s name(s) from my viewpoint and, due to the circumstances, I wasn’t able to follow up on it afterwards.

The third piece was untitled and was ushered in by Verma’s squelchy synth bass lines before Wilson took over as the featured soloist, followed by Wilkins on trumpet. These two were followed by Pascal at the drum kit, an imaginative and highly competent player who really drives the band, but does so without attracting too much attention to himself and without resorting to the obvious rhythms.

Also from the “5ive” recording “Aliens” is separated into two parts on the EP but was played as a single entity here. Featuring an exotic array of keyboard sounds,  and with solos coming from both Wilson and Verma, this seemed to be a particularly appropriate title. The performance also included Wilkins’ guitar playing as he combined with Pascal, his stabbing chords helping to provide a rhythmic platform for the keyboard soloists.

From the recent EP the tune “5db Freestyle” saw Wilkins returning to the trumpet but also doubling on electronics for perhaps the most obviously EDM (electronic dance music) influenced piece yet. The beats may have been rooted in EDM, hip hop and techno but Wilkins’ fiery trumpet soloing helped to ensure that there was still plenty of jazz content.

The as yet unrecorded “Rubicon” featured staccato rhythmic patterns that sometimes reminded me of the complexities of prog rock. The piece was also notable for the deft interplay between the two keyboard players, with the excellent Wilson eventually emerging as a soloist. Pascal was also to feature strongly behind the kit, handling the rhythmic challenges of the piece with considerable aplomb.

The next piece was untitled and featured the group’s familiar mix of electronic and acoustic sounds as Verma’s synths shared the solos with Wilkins’ trumpet. Although Wilkins was doubling on electronics and adding an extra technological element to the band sound his trumpeting was largely unadorned, the sound pure and not treated via the use of foot pedals, or even by vocalised or muted sounds. It made for an effective contrast with the all electric timbres of the keyboards.

The unrecorded “Desert Funk” saw Wilkins moving between trumpet and guitar on a hard driving piece that featured some filthy organ like keyboard sounds and which featured solos from both keyboard players and from Wilkins on trumpet.

Another untitled item featured the now familiar blend of trumpet and keys, anchored by Pascal’s sturdy but colourful drumming.

Zenel returned to the “5ives” repertoire for the closing “Boss Drum”, one of the lengthiest pieces on the recording, with its hypnotic staccato rhythms forming the basis for urgent solos from Wilson on trumpet, both keyboardists and finally Pascal with a dynamic feature at the drums.

Those that were there responded energetically to Zenel’s blend of jazz and contemporary dance rhythms and the enthusiasm and skill of the young band, all the products of musical families, was plain to see. As Dave Fuller pointed out Zenel are capable of filling dance floors in London, but it may take a bit more time out here in the provinces. Nevertheless tonight was a start and everybody I spoke to afterwards was full of praise for Zenel. I did get to have a quick word with Laurence Wilkins but time was pressing as the band packed their gear away before dashing for that last train home.

The only damper on the evening was the air conditioning, which was little short of vicious. I’d positioned myself to get the best view of the musicians but found myself right in the firing line. It was like sitting in a force nine gale and after coming in from the hot streets I was not exactly dressed for it and frankly I was bloody freezing.  Fortunately I had an extra layer with me, and a hat, which had originally been deployed to keep the sun off! A polite request to the bar staff to turn it down or off was ignored. If the weather is still as hot in July for the visit of Law of Three I’ll be sitting further away from the AC unit. I’m not a fan of AC, which I consider to be a spreader of germs.  If I get another bout of Covid, roughly twelve months after the last one, I’ll know where I got it. If it’s hot I’d rather just sweat and endure it.

Right, rant over.  Apart from that it was an excellent gig and I was very glad to renew my acquaintance with Zenel’s music and to monitor their progress. Thanks for coming up to Worcester lads, hope you got home OK.





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