Keys to the kingdom

Danny Wright, a trim, blond 31-year-old with a killer grin, is giving a reporter a tour of his spacious home in Fort Worth--a California-style, sunlight-saturated minipalace done up in tasteful tones of black and ivory.

The color scheme befits a man who, during the past decade, has amassed a small fortune as a pianist in the pop music category called "new age," rising from an obscure keyboard player in a Fort Worth Italian restaurant to an international instrumental sensation who has sold, by his record label's tally, more than two million albums worldwide.

Wright's unabashedly emotional piano trills, captured for posterity on CDs with such titles as Time Windows, Phantasys, Autumn Dreams, and Shadows, can be heard over the public-address systems of movie theaters, malls, clothing stores, gift shops, bars, airport terminals, and new age paraphernalia outlets from Ann Arbor to Zurich.

Wright's home is a shrine to that success. A gleaming black Steinway grand piano dominates one portion of the main sitting area, and affixed to the walls around it are framed covers of Wright's album and CD covers. In other parts of the house are record sales certificates, publicity photos of Wright, framed prints by his favorite artists and photographers, and numerous posters, flyers, and other items connected with Barbra Streisand, for whom Wright admits an all-consuming fascination. (Among his favorite souvenirs is an autographed camera negative of the album cover art for Yentl.)

There are also signed photos and letters of appreciation from various meaningful parties throughout Wright's career--particularly folks for whom he has performed at charitable functions. This last pursuit is especially dear to Wright's heart. He's played for groups organized to fight animal cruelty, bone marrow and breast cancer, AIDS, and countless other social ills; for each occasion, he prepares a new composition in honor of the cause.

His latest effort is the single "In Memory," a spare piano piece backed by synthesized choral vocals intended to honor the victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City federal building. It goes on sale in record stores nationwide this month. All proceeds from the single's sale are earmarked for an Oklahoma-based disaster relief fund.

At the top of a staircase leading to his TV-watching room is Wright's most treasured piece of memorabilia. It's a photo of Wright onstage at a 1990 concert in Boston. Behind him is a brown-haired young woman staring at Wright with something like awe. She is a Boston woman named Jeannie Colbert, whose 15-month old son, Danny, was dying of leukemia. The boy's family had raised and spent nearly $250,000 to test the blood of marrow donors, hoping to find a match for Danny's rare type. Desperate, they contacted Wright through a Boston promoter, and Wright agreed to do a fundraiser.

A young woman who attended the concert was so moved by the boy's plight and by Wright's dedication that she impulsively set up an appointment to have her bone marrow tested--and discovered it matched Danny Colbert's type perfectly. She contacted the infant's parents and arranged to undergo a transplant operation. As of this writing, Danny Colbert is five years old and quite healthy.

"For his third birthday, they invited me and my producer to go up to Boston to come to his party, so we went up there and just had a wonderful time," Wright says. "It was really neat to know I was a part of that little boy's life. It was the most amazing thing--right after the concert, this woman from the audience just happens to decide to check her bone marrow, and it just happens that it matches exactly. It's so neat that it almost sounds hard to believe."

So, for that matter, is Danny Wright's career--at least if you aren't a devotee of new age music. With the exception of light jazz, no popular music form is as critically reviled. At least light jazz gets reviewed in mainstream publications, even if it's brought up only to be mercilessly slammed.

But new age--a broad marketing category that encompasses everybody from more musically sophisticated acts such as Pat Metheny Group and Oregon, who could just as easily be placed in the jazz bin, to "Blond Frankenstein" John Tesh (so says Howard Stern) and Yanni, whose "Live at the Acropolis" ranks as one of public television's all-time great fundraisers--exists beneath the entertainment media's radar.

In contrast to rap and country and rock, new age artists operate in direct contact with the public. Their relationship with fans goes mostly unmediated by critics, entertainment journalists, infotainment shows, or music videos. Except for a handful of superstars signed to multinational labels with plenty of PR money to sling around, the majority of new age recording careers are made or broken by word-of-mouth.

"Local people have always been supportive of me," Wright says. "People would come hear me at [the now-defunct Fort Worth restaurant] Salvatore's and return with friends. Later, when I got an album out, they'd tell their friends, 'Hey, you gotta buy this record by this guy named Danny Wright.'"

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Matt Zoller Seitz