Though music is his life, he has trouble verbalizing what it means to him. Maybe that's because it's always been around. Clarke's father plays saxophone and has an R&B/beach music band that Daniel played with in high school.
Clarke explains that music is a part of him, like paint on a palette, he says. He knows how each note is going to make people feel so he doesn't think about what he's going to play next. "When I'm playing music, the people I play with inspire me to add to that," he says.
Since graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002 with a degree in jazz studies, Clarke has made a living as a full-time musician. And the more people he plays with, the more he continues to learn.
"When I first met the guy I couldn't believe he was so young because he's so much more mature musically than almost anyone his age," says saxophonist J.C. Kuhl, 30, who plays with Clarke in Modern Groove Syndicate. "He's just really sensitive and he's just really aware of what's going on behind him at all times. Somebody plays something and he'll be right on top of it, and the fact that he just has so much fun doing it he gave me a new way of looking at music."
On Mondays, Clarke's at Bogart's playing with the loose, improvisational Devil's Workshop Big Band. ("Dig it!") Tuesdays, he's at Cary Street Café kickin' it with the goove-jazz band Modern Groove Syndicate. ("That's the jam!") Thursdays find him at Miller's in Charlottesville playing with renowned sax man John D'earth. ("Heavy!") He also frequently plays with folk singer Jackie Frost and jazz vocalist Chris Calloway (Cab's daughter). On Mother's Day he had a five-hour solo gig at the Marriott West.
When he's not practicing or playing live, Clarke can be found in the studio working as a session man. Sometimes he doesn't even meet the group whose album he's playing on. He just goes in, listens to the music and has to figure out a way to add to it. Producer Stewart Myers has employed Clarke on recordings of all genres, from alt-country to calypso to straight-ahead singer-songwriter music.
"You have to be fast and efficient because in the studio time is money, so you're always looking for people who can hear the music and complement it, and Daniel's got really big ears," Myers says. "The guy's well-versed."
Though Clarke is young for his scene and his skill, he says he feels old. He moved to the West End to get away from the party scene in the Fan and says he finds himself living in a world opposite from others his age in the pop culture/mainstream MTV generation. "The wave I'm on isn't televised," he says, adding that he's found a lot of people on his wave. And that's part of what keeps him in Richmond the extended network of musicians with whom he can collaborate.
Clarke enjoys most the interaction with others. It happens when notes are exchanged, and in some cases pulled from a palette he didn't know was there. These days his biggest concentration is his jazz-rock group, Modern Groove Syndicate. The band just mastered its second album, which was recorded live in the studio in three days and features Richmond Symphony string players and horn players from Devil's Workshop. The band's usual lineup guitarist Frank Jackson, bass player Todd Herrington, drummer Joel DeNunzio, Kuhl on sax and Clarke on keys in addition to their regular Tuesday night gig, have been playing out of town on the weekends to get more exposure.
Clarke says he's recently been listening to hip-hop for the first time in his life. "My ears have grown a lot," he says, but jazz is still his love. He recalls listening to the newest album by jazz pianist Brad Meldau, one of his idols. "The whole first tune I was crying and screaming, I couldn't even hear the song." He's keen on the way the album combines a jazz artist with a pop producer, taking jazz in a new direction.
Clarke isn't interested in playing something different for the sake of being different. Quality and simplicity are more his focus. "We're all trying to play something different, but I don't know what different would mean to someone who's not a musician." SMore cover stories...