Photos by Darryl Howard Photography
The Kinder Foundation’s free concert series “Jazzy Sundays in the Parks” celebrates the legacy of jazz in Houston. This month’s series at Emancipation Park concluded Sunday night, with singer-songwriter Lenora headlining. Backed by her four-piece band, Lenora performed a set of self-penned originals and unique covers in an intimate, indoor experience rich with community and connectivity.
The first three “Jazzy Sundays” took place outside. But due to the forecast, Sunday’s concert got moved indoors. Rainy days can put a damper on a show, and Lenora, herself, was distraught when she learned about the venue change: “I literally cried,” she says while laughing. “But everything worked out better than I could have ever imagined. The sound and the intimacy of it was incredible. And it ended up being something different than any of the other ones. I feel like we got to connect on a one-to-one basis with everyone that was in that space.”
In the final night of Kinder’s Emancipation Park series, Lenora connected with a crowd that packed the room to capacity. And as this month’s only female headliner, she got to close out Women’s History Month in style.
The jazz theme initially posed a challenge for Lenora, who decided to just be herself. “At first I was kind of overthinking it,” she admits. “People ask me, ‘What genre of music would you fit under best?’ I describe the genre that my music subscribes to as ‘R&G’ or ‘Rhythm & Groove.’ But truthfully, my music is pretty genre-bending or even genre-defying.”
“I really just decided to not overthink it and just bring me to the show,” she says. “Jazz is improvisation; jazz is a feeling.”
That same philosophy helped her create her dynamic setlist, which was initially difficult. “I was getting really caught up on the jazz thing and wondering if I needed to sing more standards. Whenever I would think about the setlist, I would get in my head but when I actually sat down to put the show together, I just sat at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee in silence. I closed my eyes with a blank sheet of paper in front of me, and I asked myself: ‘How do you want the show to feel? What feeling do you want to impart upon the audience? What experience do you want them to have?’ And it just flowed after that.”
The final setlist contained mostly original compositions; as an independent artist, Lenora feels it’s important to perform her own songs. “I want to hear more original music from independent artists. I know Houston’s live music scene is bananas in the best way. Like we have some of the greatest talent here and I know that a lot of places, we hear cover music, which is dope. But I always want to hear more original music from localized talent. I am an advocate for that.”
“My favorite music to perform is my own,” she adds, saying that “there’s just nothing like performing your own compositions and all the music that I performed last night that was original was all written by me, if not co-written with me.”
The concert presented ten Lenora originals, along with three covers. One of them was the opener: Lenora began the performance with a stunning version of the Dramatics’ 1971 hit “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.”
“I love that song. That is one of my favorite songs. I always wanted to perform that song in a live setting, but I would never do it because I didn’t want to do it without horns. There’s a lot of brass in that song.” But she chose the song as her opener because of its familiarity — and its theme of authenticity.
“I wanted to start with something familiar to everyone, and I also am aware that everyone from teenagers to seniors come to my show… I wanted it to be something everyone felt good about ‘cause that’s a feel-good song. And I also felt like the words to it are very much me,” she says. “I always say that what you see is what you get with me. I’m always the same, the same me.”
Lenora gave the audience another glimpse of who she is with her next song, “Cool.” She wrote that song to challenge misconceptions about her: “I always felt like people had the wrong idea of me. Sometimes people think I’m this diva with this huge ego, and I’m like, I’m just cool,” she laughs. Y’all be thinkin’ I’m siditty when I wrap my head in a satin bonnet just like everybody else, she sings on the track.
Subsequently, Lenora featured songs from Girls — her experimental debut album that documented her journey through womanhood at the time. She wanted to take fans from “outside” to inside. “Outside being a time in my life where I was exploring, partying and dating, and then going inside to realizing that most of that stuff is just stuff that you’re using to try to distract you from facing yourself.” Songs in the “outside” vein include “After Party” by Koffee Brown and her own song “Tonite” — a bass-heavy, trippy song about a girls’ night out. On her breezy ditty “Part-Time Lover,” she took the entire audience to the bridge with some three-part harmony.
There were also some sweet moments during the show – like when Lenora sang “Crush on You,” which she wrote about her now-fiancé. “I love doing ‘Crush on You’ when Jarren’s in the audience,” she says. “I’ve done it like that before, but this time was really special just because he was sitting in a space where all my family and loved ones were.”
Lenora brought the blues to Jazzy Sundays with her song “Good to Me.” Her grandmother was a major blues fan, so it felt natural for Lenora to include it. A raw freestyle about being undervalued in relationships, the song was angrier and more confrontational than anything else on the setlist. Lenora performed the song with a gritty, raw delivery, so gut-wrenching that she dropped to her knees on stage. She says the song forced her to go to a dark, emotional place.
“‘Good to Me’ was about a collection of unfortunate relationships. So it’s like two or three relationships comprised into one song. So when I’m performing that song, there’s certain parts where I can recall confronting someone I was in a relationship or ‘situationship’ with,” she says. “When I sing that song, I go back to those exact moments of conflict. I’m in such a better space now, being loved properly and healing – such a better space. So, to go back there…it’s just tough. But it’s necessary.”
Also tough but necessary: grief. Lenora dedicated her cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” to her late grandmother. “I dedicated it to my grandmother, who I called my mama: Lenora ‘Doll’ Carter. I’m named after her; Lenora was her name. She raised me since I was two days old. And she was the publisher & CEO of the Forward Times before. She passed away in 2010 but her birthday was March 12th. And so I’ve been having a tough time – even though there’s been so much time that’s passed since then – just understanding that life goes on and that time is passing. And also, just missing her so much.
I had never done anything in a live performance that was in her honor, ever. So I just wanted to do it, especially being in Third Ward and Emancipation Park, which is right around the corner from our office [Forward Times]. Being in the office every day is bittersweet, because it makes me happy to help contribute to the legacy that she and my grandfather established. But it also makes me incredibly sad because everything reminds me of her here.”
Lenora brought members of the audience to tears with her tribute to her late Mama. She honored her mother’s advice (and lightened the mood) with “Red Flags,” a bouncy number about warning signs in a relationship. “That may have been my favorite one to perform on Sunday night,” she says, “because I had a lot of fun with that.” She got the audience clapping and singing along, joining her in a chant: “If you see a red flag, point it out in the sky/If you see a red flag, there is no compromise.”
She closed with a trilogy of songs: “Homebody,” “Relax,” and “Power.” “I just feel like all of those songs flow into each other and they all have a common theme of prioritizing self-care,” she says. “I feel like all of them carry that thread, so I love performing them sort of as a little trio because I think they all are saying something similar. I love when we get to that part at the end of the show and we’re able to impart that feeling on everybody. I love when people leave feeling different in a good way.”
During “Relax,” she had audience members close their eyes, breathe in, and breathe out, joining her in a calming meditation. “It’s important for us to catch our breaths,” she says. “I love doing that meditation piece and allowing everybody to just be present.”
Ending with her latest single, “Power” was important to Lenora. “I think it’s one of the most important songs that I’ve released,” she says, “because realizing and recognizing your own power and then doing something about it literally changes your whole trajectory in life. It’s important to end with that message.”
Lenora has another message for her listeners after the concert. What at first seemed like a disappointment (moving indoors) turned into an intimate experience that allowed her to connect with her audience. That yielded an important lesson: “Don’t defeat yourself because things don’t go according to plan. It’s quite possible that things could turn out far better than you could ever imagine.”