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Story By Mike Overall, Photo By Susan O'Connor
Bassist Derek Doyle is a bandleader’s dream come true: a young and passionate musician whose eagerness to learn his craft and hone his art to the level of perfection, and whose willingness to play any kind of music, anywhere, at any time, has already made him a musical force to be reckoned with. And to top off the myriad qualities he possesses as a creative musician, the 26-year old bassist is such a quick study that his abilities as a performer are so impressive and numerous even his colleagues regard him as a player who is fast-tracking his way into the realm of true virtuosity.
Although Doyle, a Jonesboro resident and native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., earlier this year received his bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Arkansas State University, it is obvious to those who know him best, and especially to the musicians with whom he has performed, that Doyle’s ongoing love affair with music may one day vault him into the ranks of those instrumentalists whose sheer artistry mark them as masters of their craft.
“I just want to be the most versatile player possible,” Doyle said in a recent interview. “The more I play with excellent musicians, and the more time I spend listening to those bass players and others who are my heroes because their abilities and gifts as artists know no bounds, the more determined I am to be a true professional when I’m on the bandstand.”
An affable, unruffable soul whose kindness and generosity are as up front as the fierce sense of determination and intensity that consume him when he is playing his instrument, Doyle also enjoys his role as a teacher. “I have twenty-five to thirty students that I work with at Greg Arnold’s store (Back Beat Music, 128 Southwest Drive in Jonesboro),” Doyle said.
The bassist/drummer said most of his students are youngsters, a group whose eagerness and willingness to learn inspire their teacher to hone his skills as an educator. Doyle realizes that teaching his charges provides him with a unique education of his own.
“Working with the kids has made me a better player because it’s taught me the value of listening,” Doyle said, as well as imbued within him the means by which the learning process is structured in a give-and-take environment in the music studio.
Doyle said he was a “choir kid” when he was in high school, but switched to band music when he enrolled for a two-year stint at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff.
“I played in jazz band when I was at the community college,” he said, which was when he fell in love with this country’s most unique contribution to the musical arts. As is the case with any musician who takes his craft seriously, Doyle began listening almost obsessively to this nation’s classical music. “It wasn’t long before I fell in love with bebop...with the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (and such seminal bassists of the period as Charles Mingus and Ray Brown).” Doyle also developed an intense passion for music of the so-called hard-bop period, among whose leading exponents were the genius trumpeter Miles Davis and his equally gifted counterpart, John Coltrane, along with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and the supremely gifted bassist Ron Carter.
Although he reserves a special place in his heart and soul for the music of jazz, Doyle is anything but a musical snob. He loves classical, heavy metal and punk music, mainstream rock and roll, traditional country music and bluegrass, and a long litany of music from other lands and cultures. As far as the bassist is concerned, if it’s good music he hears or is called upon to play, then it is well worth his time and artistic effort to do the music every measure of justice his artistic sense may command.
Doyle is one of the more in-demand bassists in this part of the country, and has worked with such stalwart groups as the Jonesboro-based contemporary band Plain Meanness, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Grant Garland’s group, bands led by Jonesboro trumpeter/composer Rob Alley, and the ensemble Jazz Alliance, which is led by Arkansas State’s director of percussion studies, drummer/vibist Craig Collison, a veteran of the Air Force Band in Washington, D.C.
Doyle began playing electric bass when he was a teenager. Several years later, when his love of improvised jazz moved him to pursue new creative plateaus in his playing, Doyle began studying upright bass. “Playing upright poses a never-ending set of musical challenges” that the musician regards as exhilarating and formidable. “Although I love playing both instruments (electric and upright), the double-bass is so demanding on me as a creative musician...that I’m constantly trying to discover new ways to develop the dexterity the instrument demands in order to attain the sound and speed and rhythmic intensity I want to achieve as an artist.”
Doyle’s all-time favorite upright player is the late Danish virtuoso jazz bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, known universally as “NHOP” to his legions of fellow musicians and fans throughout the world. Pedersen, whose technical virtuosity combined with an unparalleled sense of musicality revolutionized the art of bass playing, worked with some of the world’s greatest musicians, both here and abroad.
“For me, NHOP is the standard by which all other bassists are measured,” Doyle said, shaking his head in wonderment at the thought of the Dane’s remarkable capacity to reinvent himself as a world-class musician whose chops (musician’s slang for technical prowess on the instrument) left even his fellow musical travelers awestruck at the creative depths he plumbed on the instrument.
“Guys like NHOP, John Patitucci, John Zorn and Avishai Cohen play on a whole other level,” Doyle said, his face transformed by an expansive smile at the sheer sense of wonderment and magic that such great musicians are capable of imparting to their listeners. The “level” at which such musicians perform is “up there in the stratosphere,” a noted critic once wrote, “where music and great art become the healing force of the universe.”
When Derek Doyle says he wants to “play like them (the world’s greatest musicians, jazz or otherwise),” what he really means, from the depths of his artistic soul, is that a small-town kid from Missouri, the one who first embraced serious music with stars in his eyes along with a love for the arts that remains firmly embedded in his heart and soul, will make every sacrifice to “go the distance” it takes to transform himself into an artist of the highest caliber.
The musical journey Derek Doyle began when he was a teenager, via the niche he fashioned for himself when he was a student at a small community college just up the road from Jonesboro, has become an artistic odyssey that could land him “up there,” in that magical milieu where musical giants roam above the planet they so deeply enrich with their God-given gifts.