A Jazzman Among Them 

Daniel Clarke sits at the right hand of a pop queen, playing keyboards.

click to enlarge art25_lede_daniel_clarke_148.jpg

Richmond keyboard wonderboy Daniel Clarke is suddenly everywhere, playing behind grown-up teen sensation Mandy Moore on "Live With Regis and Kelly" (June 19), "The Tonight Show" (June 26), "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (June 27) and Martha Stewart's show (sometime in July).

Richmond audiences used to seeing him up close with Modern Groove Syndicate, Jackie Frost or one of Brian Jones' multiple projects will have to content themselves with televised glimpses of Clarke's first steps on the national stage.

Clarke was recruited into a recording session for Moore's new album back in October at the recommendation of local drummer Jones, who, with bassist and Agents of Good Roots band-mate Stewart Myers, comprised the rhythm section.

"I told the producer, 'Just bring this guy up and you are going to love him,'" Jones says. "Daniel is a musical omnivore. He listens to everything and he knows how to play it all. He's so pumped up and positive. In the studio, it's easy to get bogged down; his kind of energy is invaluable."

"The fact of the matter that with this kind of music it doesn't have anything to do with how good a musician you are," Clarke says, "but how you are as a person, how well you can work with others." He calls Jones and Myers, who've anchored sessions for the likes of Jason Mraz and Liz Phair, "the best pop rhythm section there is."

"Pop is a different art form from jazz," Clarke says. "The groove is first and foremost. Everything has to be carefully thought out. You have to come up with a particular hook rather than blow on the whole thing. If you try to fit something superinteresting into the flow, pop ears hear a clash."

So to say that Mandy Moore is the best of the current generation of pop idols is perhaps faint praise.

"People tend to loop her in to Britney and Jessica," Clarke says. "But knowing her, it's really hard to see. She's a really good actor, and she's had some good roles." She's also a far better singer than her lip-synching counterparts, with an appealing voice and good taste.

But Moore is still primarily known for her movies. After starting with respectable but adolescent fare like teen weeper "A Walk to Remember" and "How to Deal," Moore has moved on to independent film fare such as the fundamentalist satire "Saved" or "Southland Tales," the delayed second film by "Donnie Darko" director and ex-Richmonder Richard Kelly. She poked fun at Britney Spears in the dark comedy "American Dreamz" and at herself during a multiepisode appearance as herself in HBO's comedy of Hollywood excess, "Entourage."

That new record (the one that pulled Clarke into the pop vortex) is a bid to break through to mature musical respect.

"It's a Joni Mitchell/Fleetwood Mac kind of thing," Clarke says. "This is her first foray into writing — she co-wrote all the songs — and they have really good lyrics. It's completely different from anything she's done before, a solid, organic pop record."

It's turned out to be a very good gig. Moore and her handlers were so impressed, Clarke earned himself a place on the tour bus.

"The band is just killing, the music doesn't necessarily have to be the same all the time, and Mandy is really sweet," Clarke says. "After all she has to deal with — the schmoozing, the fashion line, the movies, the photo shoots — she's not really caught up in it.

"She's a real chick," Clarke says with admiration. "Just a 23-year-old girl you can talk to and hang out with."

Clarke has kept a down-to-earth attitude through the glamorous blur of studio lights, sound checks, green rooms and travel.

"It doesn't matter if I'm in Richmond or L.A., getting paid $100 or $50,000 for a session. What's important is making a living, playing music that is real to me," he says. "Playing jazz with Brian Jones is amazing; playing pop with Mandy Moore is a ton of fun — one is not better or worse.

"The other night I played a gig with [longtime area band-mates] Robbie Sinclair and Curtis Fye," he says wistfully. "In the end, there's no place like home." With opportunities opening in L.A., a girlfriend in Oakland, Calif., family and a house in Richmond, it's impossible to tell where Clarke's road will take him. S

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