As you take the steps down into the belly of Tanqueray’s, an underground bar in Downtown Orlando, you come across a smoky jazz haven adorned with Christmas lights and a wall of mirrors that makes the cramped venue appear twice as big.
Cast in a shroud of blue and red lighting, the Absinthe Trio, a local jazz fusion band that plays on Wednesday nights, cruises through complex compositions that nod your head for you. As spectators linger between the tables to get a closer look, guitarist Bobby Koelble throws his long, dark dreadlocks over his shoulder and gracefully executes catchy transitions on his fret board.
If you asked Koelble where he’d be the next day, the answer might surprise you.
Koelble spends Thursday afternoons at UCF as an adjunct jazz guitar teacher.
If asked where he was in 1995, you’d get a very different answer; 16 years ago, he was touring the world playing with the legendary metal band, Death.
A musician who wears many hats, the 42-year-old jazz guitar adjunct’s musical pursuits have led him through a career that is both rich and diverse. With a background composed of giving private lessons, teaching jazz students at universities, managing his own musical projects, freelance bands and touring all over the world, Koelble has clearly dedicated his life to music.
“I’m just fascinated by music,” said Koelble with a tone as calm and mellow as the jazz he plays. “I still consider myself to be a student … I just have that unending, relentless curiosity about music.”
From Motorhead to Miles Davis
Born in Newark, N.J., Koelble moved to the Central Florida area at the age of three and began his musical journey with the organ at the age of seven. At age 13, Koelble became interested in guitar after listening to hard rock bands such as Van Halen and AC/DC. Koelble then went on to play metal, influenced by bands such as Judas Priest, Motorhead and Iron Maiden.
In the midst of Koelble’s growing interest in metal music during high school, he started listening to jazz rock fusion, which combined jazz harmonies with a rock guitar sound. It wasn’t until he attended Berklee College of Music after high school that he discovered and fell in love with traditional jazz, which he has been playing ever since.”Jazz is something that I really love and have developed a strong affinity for, but it’s the same with metal,” said Koelble. “The fact that I happen to love heavy metal and that fact that I happen to love jazz just brought me both to the band Death and the UCF Jazz Studies program.”
Death and Moving On
Arguably the most noteworthy point in Koelble’s career was the time he spent from 1994 to 1996 playing with Death, a metal act considered to be one of the very first bands to be labeled as death metal, a subgenre characterized by deep growling vocals, heavily distorted guitars and fast drum parts.
Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Chuck Schuldiner, who is revered by many as “The Father of Death Metal,” the four-piece metal band from Orlando grew rapidly in popularity within the metal world due to their own unique sound. Schuldiner, who was looking for a guitarist to record and tour for Death’s sixth album, “Symbolic,” met with Koelble through a mutual friend who worked at a local guitar store. After auditioning, Koelble, who was fresh from Berklee, was offered the position and he eagerly jumped on it.
During the time he was with Death, Koelble recorded on “Symbolic” and traveled with the band all over the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan to support the record. Shortly after the band came back from the road however, Schuldiner disbanded Death (for the time being) to work on his other band, Control Denied.
Though his time with Death was cut short due to the band disbanding, Koelble stated that he felt very fortunate to be part of the band’s history.
“It was one of those cases that because we had a mutual friend, the position came to me,” said Koelble “It was very much a privilege to be there; I didn’t take it lightly it all. I knew that there were a thousand other cats that would slit throats just to be in that position.”
Turning to the Trio
In addition to his vast knowledge and experience with metal music, Koelble – who jokingly claims to have “musical A.D.D.” – experiments with other genres including jazz, metal, funk, reggae, electronic and Brazilian music.
“Musicians that are diverse like Bobby are great because they bring more to the palette; they have so many influences to pull from,” said Rion Smith, the drummer for the Absinthe Trio. “When you do so many styles, you get to the core of what music is on a large scale.”
In addition to his band The Absinthe Trio, Koelble has also had a project for the past 10 years called Junkie Rush, which has a world music/rock fusion sound. With Koelble on guitar and vocals, the band has released four albums and has toured extensively throughout Florida and on the East Coast.
“If you pigeon hole yourself with one style of music, it’ll get mundane,” said Matt Gallagher, bassist and vocalist for Junkie Rush. “With someone like Bobby, who eats, breaths and sleeps music, why not learn as much as you can?”
Junior music performance major Ben Tiptonford, who studies jazz guitar under Koelble, started taking guitar seriously when he heard Death’s “Symbolic” album right after high school and was eager to take classes with the former Death guitarist.
“Bobby is the man, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said Tiptonford, who has been playing the guitar for about 12 years. “He’s definitely one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever sat in a room with.”
Tiptonford feels that Koelble has the right idea when it comes to musical diversity and that his own skills have broadened since taking classes with him.
“I think it’s awesome how balanced he is in other styles; he’s really well-rounded,” said Tiptonford. “I remember having to play a traditional Jewish song at a Bar Mitzvah and Bobby helped me out with it. He does it all. Diversity is important if you want to work and live as a musician.”
In a small, soundproof practice room at the UCF Performing Arts Building, Koelble begins a master class with two of his jazz guitar students. The brightly-lit room is scattered with music stands and instrument cases and the walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. With long dreadlocks, tribal rosewood earrings and portraits of John Coltrane and other legendary jazz musicians tattooed across his arms, Koelble picks up his red, semi-hollow Gibson guitar and snaps his fingers at a medium tempo.