Rick Laird, whose bass guitar skills graced a number of jazz rock’s most prominent fusion bands in the 1970s, died Sunday at age 80. No cause of death was given, but he recently had entered hospice care.
Laird’s work was part of pioneering groups the Mahavishu Orchestra and Return to Forever in the 1970s, the decade where the genre took off. He also worked with jazz greats Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich and Sonny Rollins during his career.
Born in Dublin in 1941, Laird moved to New Zealand at 16, then returned to the UK in 1962. While in New Zealand, he had established himself on that country’s and Australia’s jazz scenes as an upright bassist.
Upon his UK return, he worked with keyboardist Brian Auger, touring with him and meeting his future bandmate, John McLaughlin.
Laird won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and moved to that city at age 25. He then transitioned from upright bass to the electric model. That opened the door to join forces with McLaughlin when he came calling to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the early pioneers of jazz-rock fusion.
Laird, McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman became a unit respected for its musical prowess and its intensity, blending elements of classical, rock and jazz into live performances that became must-see for fans of the genre. Laird was with them from 1971-73, playing on the group’s first two studio albums, including the classic debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, and its follow-up, Birds of Fire. He also was part of a live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity.
He then transitioned to live and studio dates for various band leaders, but briefly replaced Stanley Clarke in Return to Forever in 1978. (His former band leader in that group, Chick Corea, died in February).
After that, Laird issued a solo album, 1979’s Soft Focus.
He retired from music in 1982, focusing on photography, specializing in shots of some of the musical greats he knew.
McLaughlin wrote on Twitter, “RIP brother Rick Laird. What great memories we have. Miss you!!!”
Cobham also posted a tribute on his Facebook page, which read, “To all who were close to the M.O. you knew that the most dependable person in the band was the bass player.
“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!
“Rick Laird bid this world goodbye at sun up this morning. Already I miss his likeness and voice that was featured in the powerful quietness and authority he projected on and off the stage. The body is going but the persona will remain as an influence on whatever I play for the rest of my days. I miss him already.”
No information on survivors beyond a daughter or memorial plans was immediately available.