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Rick Laird 1941–2021

Original bassist for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he also played with numerous jazz notables in the '60s and '70s before turning to photography

Rick Laird
Rick Laird

Rick Laird, the Irish bassist whose work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s helped to define jazz fusion, died on July 4. No cause or place of death has been revealed to date, but Laird’s daughter had posted on social media earlier this year that the musician was to enter hospice care. He was 80.

John McLaughlin, the guitarist who formed and led Mahavishnu, acknowledged Laird’s passing in a brief July 4 post: “RIP brother Rick Laird. What great memories we have. Miss you !!!”

Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu’s original drummer, posted a lengthy tribute, part of which read, “He played what was necessary to keep the rest of us from going off our musical rails. He was my rock and allowed me to play and explore musical regions that I would not have been able to navigate without him having my back!”

Laird’s career was relatively brief—he retired from performing music in 1982—but he was quite prolific during his years of activity. In addition to his role with Mahavishnu, which included his contributions to the seminal albums The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), Laird served as a prolific sideman during the late ’60s and ’70s, working in various capacities with Sonny Rollins, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, and Wes Montgomery, among others.

Richard Quentin Laird was born Feb. 5, 1941, in Dublin, Ireland. He began playing piano and ukulele as a small child, graduating to the guitar as early as age five. By his teens, having been introduced to jazz by his mother, Laird was an accomplished player; he continued studying while living in New Zealand with his father. After hearing upright bassist Ray Brown on an Oscar Peterson recording, Laird switched to that instrument, and by 18 he was performing as a professional bassist with local groups. He toured the country with pianist Mike Nock and moved to Sydney, but in 1962, Laird decided to move to England, where he felt there would be more opportunities to pursue a career in music.

There he teamed with such major players as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and keyboardist Brian Auger, becoming a member of the latter’s groups the Brian Auger Trinity and the Brian Auger Group in 1963-64. (It was during this stint that Laird first rubbed elbows with McLaughlin, a member of the latter outfit.) After refusing Auger’s request that he switch from acoustic to electric bass, Laird left the band and took a position as the house bassist for Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, England’s premier venue showcasing the genre.

That experience put Laird in touch with numerous touring musicians, and he was often recruited to perform at live gigs and on recordings with them. He contributed to the soundtrack of the 1966 film Alfie, which featured Rollins, and became a member of Rich’s ensemble during a 1969 London residency.

By that time, Laird—who had taken some time off to study arranging and composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston—had made the switch to electric bass guitar. When McLaughlin (who was coming off a run with Miles Davis) approached him in 1971 to become a founding member of the new electric jazz quintet he was forming, Laird signed on, remaining with the guitarist, drummer Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman for roughly two years. Combining complex jazz arrangements with elements of funk, rock, and Indian music—a passion of McLaughlin’s—and performing at great volume, the Mahavishnu Orchestra appealed not only to those who were already attuned to progressive jazz but young rock fans who’d never experienced that brand of instrumental dexterity before.

The Inner Mounting Flame was not particularly successful commercially, peaking at No. 89 on the Billboard album chart, but by 1973, having won over live audiences internationally, the group was able to parlay its sophomore LP, Birds of Fire, into a hit, reaching No. 15 in the U.S. A subsequent live Mahavishnu album, 1973’s Between Nothingness and Eternity, fared modestly, peaking at No. 41.

A third studio album was begun that same year, but by that time some of the band’s members were beginning to tire of the pressure of the road, and Mahavishnu dissolved (McLaughlin would form a second lineup in 1974). The unreleased 1973 sessions would be released as The Lost Trident Sessions in 1999.

Laird spent the rest of the 1970s working with other jazz heavyweights, including Getz and Corea, and in 1979 he released his only solo album, titled Soft Focus, featuring saxophonist Joe Henderson, pianist Tom Grant, and drummer Ron Steen.

By the early ’80s, however, Laird’s interests had shifted and he gave up performing, spending his time teaching bass—he authored two bass instruction books—and working as a professional photographer, shooting fellow jazz artists including Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Corea, and Elvin Jones, as well as non-music-related subjects.

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.