by John Shand
When I first saw Bob Bertles on television in New Zealand in the 1960s he was a striking figure: imposing not just of stature, but of hair (an out-sized Afro). His visceral, driving alto and baritone saxophone playing was equally commanding, and this was not in a jazz context, but the chunky r’n’b of Max Merritt and the Meteors.
The Afro is ancient history, of course, yet Bertles remains imposing, and perhaps it was always a big man’s absence of timidity – a crash or crash through mentality – that made his playing so compelling, whether amid Johnny O’Keefe’s rock’n’roll, Nucleus’s fusion, his own bands or Ten Part Invention. He thinks the secret to being a good musician is to never stop learning. ‘Each performance you try to be better than the last one,’ he says.
The Early Years
Born in 1939 in Newcastle, Bertles took up clarinet aged nine, teaching himself for the first seven years. The impetus was infatuation with his parents’ Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw records. ‘I used to brainwash myself with them,’ he says. ‘From as early as I can remember – probably three or four – I wanted to play the clarinet.’ Discovering Charlie Parker opened up another world of musical possibilities, and at 16 he bought an alto and began taking lessons. He had already been playing suburban dances, but in 1956, alto in hand, he joined his first jazz quartet. Having bought a baritone, he also teamed up with rock’n’roll outfit Johnny Reb and the Rebels, with whom he was recording in ’58 when Johnny O’Keefe walked into the control room, saw the baritone and asked Bertles to join his band.
O’Keefe was Australia’s first pop superstar, complete with screaming fans. ‘I had a cream wool sports coat,’ Bertles recalls, ‘and one night at Festival Hall in Melbourne I quite innocently walked out the stage door to have a cigarette. There were hundreds of girls out there! My coat was torn off, and I got the shock of my life!’
Touring with O’Keefe let Bertles meet jazz players elsewhere in Australia. In one Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, for instance, he met Horst Liepolt, Keith Stirling, Stewie Speer and Brian Brown, and sat in. ‘I was in the hey-day of my Jackie McLean impersonations,’ he recounts, ‘so they all loved me. They said, “You’re a hard-bopper. You’re like a Melbourne guy!”‘
Bertles had first heard McLean on 1956’s Jackie’s Pal, which, he says, defined the way he wanted to play. He always tells his students to ape their favourite musicians. ‘You’re never going to sound like them,’ he says, ‘but it’s going to get you going in the right direction. You’re still going to get your own sound and style.’ He was in his McLean phase when he first recorded for ABC radio and led a quintet at the El Rocco, which variously included Dave Levy, Keith Stirling and Bruce Cale. Cale says that of the all the musicians he had worked with at this time he thought Bertles the most gifted.
Europe and Back
Bob left O’Keefe in 1963, moved to Melbourne and wrote his first compositions. During the ’60s he forsook the McLean influence for a freer approach. ‘I went through a period after hearing Eric Dolphy of really starting to go out there,’ he says. ‘Then I heard people like Phil Woods again, and he brought me back to the standards, and I found it very hard to get back into playing straight-ahead after having gone so far outside. I always blamed hearing Dolphy for really messing up my articulation for a while!’
Meanwhile he moved around the country until joining Max Merritt in 1967, with magisterial drummer Stewie Speer soon following him. ‘For me it was a dream,’ Bertles says. ‘I think it was the best rhythm section I’ve ever played with. I could do anything and it just sounded right.’ In 1970 they moved to England, where their ambitious manager leased an eight-bedroom mansion in Surrey, and the band – all on retainers – moved in, complete with families. They created a studio in the coal cellar and hired the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio to record an album. No release ensued, and they played virtually no gigs.
Frustrated, Bertles sought alternatives, and soon found himself doing three recording sessions a day for the likes of Cilla Black and Cliff Richard (with whom he also toured). ‘While all the other blokes are sitting at Reigate twiddling their thumbs, I’m out on the road having a great time and recording,’ he recalls. ‘Then I got the chance to join Nucleus, so I said to Max, “Sorry, man. I’ve got to do it.”‘ Led by trumpeter (and Miles Davis biographer) Ian Carr, Nucleus was one of Europe’s foremost jazz-rock bands, and Bertles recorded four albums with them.
In 1976 he returned to Sydney, joining the Col Nolan Quartet, in which he took up tenor. After that he formed his own Moontrane, which recorded as a sextet with Miroslav Bukovsky, Dave Panichi, Paul McNamara, Darcy Wright and Alan Turnbull. Meanwhile Bertles taught at the Conservatorium, and in 1981 played in his first theatre show, Chicago, starring Nancye Hayes, whom Bertles subsequently married. His theatrical career peaked when, aged 64, he became a quadruple threat in The Threepenny Opera: singing, dancing, acting and playing saxophone. Highly acclaimed, the production toured to Colombia.
Of Recent Times
He and Hayes enjoyed annual New York sojourns, and in 1984 he connected with a childhood hero, Lee Konitz, who was to be a guest teacher at the Conservatorium the following year. Bertles gave two of his LPs to the great saxophonist, beginning an enduring friendship and mutual admiration society. ‘I’d go up to his place and we’d play saxophones at each other for hours,’ says Bob. ‘When he came out here we’d do the same. We’d have the horns out in the lounge room playing, and be trying reeds, swapping mouthpieces and just messing around. It was fantastic.’
Performing with Konitz is among the highlights of recent decades, alongside leading his own quintet and being a member of the majestic Ten Part Invention. ‘It was a terrific band,’ says Bertles. ‘But after 25 years to be playing virtually the same music was a bit hard… The band, for me, anyway, didn’t have the same fire that it started off with. It was a little bit tired sometimes. [Leader] John [Pochee] and I pulled out at the same time.’
His quintet with Warwick Alder, Dave Levy, Chris Qua and Ron Lemke recorded Rhythm of the Heart and Cool Beans for Rufus in the ’90s. ‘I’m very proud of those,’ says Bertles. ‘The other one I’m really happy with was Moonlight Saving Time (ABC), the album I did with [singer] Toni Lamond. And when I was with Nucleus there was an album we did called Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, composed by Neil Ardley.’
For 18 years he has hosted All That’s Jazz – The Best of Bebop and Beyond on Eastside Radio every Wednesday, meanwhile only playing the gigs he most wants to do: ‘People say to me, “Are you still working?” And I say, “Well not really. I just play!” I don’t know if it was the last theatre gig I did or the last gig with Ten Part Invention, but it used to get hard carrying all that gear. I said, “The next time I take a saxophone to play I really want to play and enjoy it, and not feel like I’m going to work.” And I’ve stuck to that – so I haven’t done much playing ever since!’
The alto and baritone are always out at home, however. ‘They’re staring at me, saying, “What are you doing? Play me!”‘
‘All That’s Jazz’ on Eastside Radio
Ten Part Invention at the ABC (being announced by Jim McLeod) in 1990
Max Merritt & The Meteors