Rick Laird, bassist at the forefront of fusion, dies at 80
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Rick Laird, bassist at the forefront of fusion, dies at 80
“The Inner Mounting Flame” (1971).

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rick Laird, a bassist who played a central role in the jazz-rock fusion boom as a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, then retired from music to pursue a career in photography, died on July 4 in New City, New York. He was 80.

His daughter, Sophie Rose Laird, said the cause was lung cancer.

Guitarist John McLaughlin called Laird in 1971 with an invitation to join a group he was forming with the goal of uniting the jazz-rock aesthetic — which McLaughlin had helped establish as a member of Miles Davis and Tony Williams’ earliest electric bands — with Indian classical music and European experimentalism.

The new ensemble, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which also featured drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman, became one of the most popular instrumental bands of its time. It released a pair of studio albums now regarded as classics for Columbia Records, “The Inner Mounting Flame” (1971) and “Birds of Fire” (1973), and one live album, “Between Nothingness & Eternity” (1973).

Laird had already begun to prove himself in the jazz world as a promising upright bassist, but with Mahavishnu he switched to playing electric exclusively. The group ranged from simmering interplay over odd time signatures to thrashing, high-altitude improvisation. It was all dependent on Laird’s steady hand, and on his knack for balancing power with restraint.

“Someone had to say one” — that is, make clear where each measure began — “and that was me,” Laird said in a 1999 interview with Bass Player magazine.

On the day of Laird’s death, Cobham posted a tribute on Facebook calling him “the most dependable person in that band.” Laird, he said, “played what was necessary to keep the rest of us from going off our musical rails.”

“He was my rock,” Cobham added, “and allowed me to play and explore musical regions that I would not have been able to navigate without him having my back!”

All of McLaughlin’s bandmates left Mahavishnu in the mid-1970s amid disagreements over money, creative control and the role of religion in the group. (McLaughlin was a devoted follower of the spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy and wanted the band to express his teachings directly.) He would continue the band for years, using different lineups.

Laird spent the rest of the decade as a bassist-for-hire with some of the most esteemed names in jazz, touring the United States and the world with the saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, among others. In the late 1970s he spent a brief stint in a band led by keyboardist Chick Corea.

Laird released one album of his own, “Soft Focus,” recorded in 1976, which also featured Henderson.

But in 1982, fearing that a musician’s lifestyle would prove unstable as he grew older, Laird embraced his other passion: photography. He had bought cameras and equipment on a tour of Japan and started doing photo shoots for fellow musicians. He soon made taking pictures his full-time job, shooting portraits for law firms and doing stock photography for agencies.

But he also composed and recorded frequently throughout his retirement, although these projects have not been officially released.

In addition to his daughter, Laird is survived by his sister, Tanya Laird; his brother, David; and his partner, Jane Meryll. His two marriages ended in divorce.

Richard Quentin Laird was born in Dublin on Feb. 5, 1941. His father, William Desmond Laird, a building contractor, was Protestant, and his mother, Margaret Muriel (Le Gear) Laird, a homemaker, was Roman Catholic; although neither parent was particularly religious, their families weren’t on speaking terms. Eventually, the couple split up.

At 16, Rick was sent to live on a sheep farm in New Zealand. Hoping to pursue a career in music, he eventually moved to Sydney, where he gained a reputation on the jazz scene before moving to London.

There, he became the house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s, a top jazz club that often hosted musicians on international tours, and met some of the world’s most famous jazz talent. He played with the likes of guitarist Wes Montgomery and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and engagements with saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster led to albums with them.

It was a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston that first took Laird to the United States, in 1966. He moved to Los Angeles without graduating and joined drummer Buddy Rich’s band for a year before relocating to New York. In the early 2000s, he moved to New City, just north of New York City, where he lived until his death. He died in a hospice facility.

In an interview for Guitar Player magazine in 1980, Laird reflected on a career as a side musician.

“If you play a supportive role, instead of soloing constantly, the chances of becoming well known by the average audience are very slim,” he said. “The more I’ve refined my skills, the less I get noticed.

“It’s a paradox, but I don’t mind. I don’t think I need my ego stroked like that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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