Delvon Lamarr’s musical career started with a lie.
“I think it was in seventh grade, I ended up lying to the band teacher,” Lamarr, who fronts the Washington-state-based Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, laughs over the phone from his home in Pullman, about four-and-a-half hours east of Seattle. “You had to take an elective, like a cooking class or guitar, and I didn’t really want to do any of those. So I was in the band room one day and I saw this baritone horn on the floor and I told the teacher, ‘I know how to play that.’ He put me in band the next semester and I had no idea what I was doing, but I just picked this horn up, looked at the guy next to me and did whatever he was doing. I just played the thing. I couldn’t read music, but I knew how to play, like, automatically, immediately when I picked it up.”
And it’s been that way for Lamarr ever since. He moved on to tenor sax, then trumpet and drums, mostly self-taught. These days the organ takes center stage in Lamarr’s life, leading his jazz trio—sometimes called DLO3—in building grooves deep enough to recline in. The group’s debut album, Close But No Cigar, reached number one on the U.S. Contemporary Jazz Albums chart in 2018. Their sophomore album of originals, I Told You So, released in January, has followed suit.
But the magic of DLO3 is in live performance, in guitarist Jimmy James’ joyful grin as he sears the frets of his Silvertone, in drummer Dan Weiss’ beanie-clad head bobbing as he taps out effortless rhythms, in Lamarr’s amiable storytelling between songs. The band has historically spent more months on the road than at home, traveling the country by van, flying to Europe to spend months on the road there.
Then there was COVID.
“I didn’t think we’d actually survive it financially,” Lamarr says. Touring was the band’s bread and butter, and they’d just hired Weiss to replace original drummer David McGraw.
“[Weiss] started in February of 2020. He had quit his day job and everything,” Lamarr says. “And we played four shows and everything got shut down after that. But he hung in there and now we’re getting ready to do it again.”
The band is packing to hit the road this very evening, Lamarr says, starting at the Treefort Music Festival in Boise, Idaho, before working its way across the mountains to the Front Range for a string of shows between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, including a Sept. 26 stop at Fox Theatre.
“I’ve got to thank my wife and our manager, Ms. Amy Novo, for seeing us through this,” Lamarr says of the past 18 months of uncertainty. “She works her magic. If there’s a problem, man, she’s on it. We hang in there basically because of her.”
Short in stature and unwavering in her support of her husband’s talents, Novo is often lovingly referred to as “shortcake mafia.” She watched Lamarr languish in obscurity for years on the Seattle music scene, lugging his 400-pound B-3 Hammond around to play other people’s music.
“I was watching an amazing talent being marginalized,” Novo has said of her husband’s years as a sideman. “He would be getting paid like $75 a gig and be spending $60 in gas to cart around his instrument, sometimes even renting a U-Haul. It wasn’t fair.”
Novo made a deal with her husband: You pick the musicians you want to work with, and I’ll take care of the rest. And she has. Part manager, part den mother, Novo gives Lamarr the freedom to do what he does best.
“It’s been a relief,” Lamarr says, “and I’m so grateful to her.”
Of course the band has had its share of hiccups. Original guitarist Colin Higgins parted ways with the group in 2017, and original drummer David McGraw decided he needed to leave the band in late 2019 to spend more time with his two young children.
The new album’s title is a playful taunt to people who said DLO3 would lose its trademark groove without McGraw’s hypnotic pocket drumming.
“Dave had such a distinct style of drumming that is kind of a lost art,” Lamarr says. “I kept telling people, ‘It doesn’t have to be the same, it just has to be good.’ I don’t want it to sound the same, I just want it to sound good. That’s why I called this album I Told You So, because that’s what I’ve been saying the whole time.”
While McGraw can be heard on the album, check YouTube for DLO3’s February 2021 performance on KEXP to see Weiss at work on the scorching jam “Aces,” which McGraw actually wrote.
“I miss David McGraw on drums too, but this guy is also a pocket machine,” one commenter writes. “And the sound of that snare is snappy AF, and those Istanbul Mehmet (cymbals) are the perfect match.”
(One commenter sums up the profound joy that is watching Jimmy James play guitar: “Jimmy James got the BEST stankface in the game. Rippin’ them solos!”)
It’s easy to call DLO3’s output “feel good” music, but it misses the fundamental spirituality of the work. Lamarr grew up listening to jazz greats like John Coltrane, whose 1965 album A Supreme Love made a huge impact on a young Lamarr.
“My interpretation of that whole album is John Coltrane communicating with God, to a higher being—transcending,” he explains. “I grew up in Pentecostal church and I was familiar with people speaking in tongues. The album really reminded me of that.”
Lamarr taps into that trance-like state in his own work, finding his own commune with God, though he struggles to put it into words when he talks about it. But that’s spirituality: something you feel, not something you explain. Something you trust, not something you try to sell to others.
And while the pandemic was hard on DLO3, Lamarr says the time off has given him time to learn new instruments, lay down albums’ worth of new material, and explore lyricism and vocals. He’s even got a side project, DLO3 and Friends, that brings in musicians the band has met in its travels.
“It’s going slow,” Lamarr says, “but so far it’s sounding killing.”
On the bill: Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio with The Green House Band. 9 p.m. Sunday, September 26, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder. Tickets are $20.