Rick Laird, a bassist who played a central role in the jazz-rock fusion boom as a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and then retired from music to pursue a career in photography, died on July 4 in a hospice in New City, NY He was 80 years old.
Her daughter, Sophie Rose Laird, said the cause was lung cancer.
Guitarist John McLaughlin called Mr. Laird in 1971 with an invitation to join a band he was forming, the purpose of which would be to unite the jazz-rock aesthetic – which Mr. McLaughlin had helped establish as a member of Miles Davis and Tony Williams first electric groups – with Indian classical music and European experimentalism.
The new ensemble, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which also included drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman, became one of the most popular instrumental groups of its time. He released two studio albums now considered classics for Columbia Records, “The Inner Mounting Flame” (1971) and “Birds of Fire” (1973), and a live album, “Between Nothingness & Eternity” (1973).
Mr. Laird had already started to prove himself in the jazz world as a promising upright bassist, but with Mahavishnu he switched to playing exclusively electric. The group ranged from simmering interaction over weird time signatures to high-altitude improvisation. It all depended on Mr. Laird’s steady hand and his knack for balancing power with restraint.
“Someone must have said a” – that is, make it clear where each bar started – “and that was me,” Laird said in a 1999 interview with Bass Player magazine.
On the day of Mr Laird’s death, Mr Cobham posted a tribute on Facebook calling him “the most reliable person in this group”. Mr. Laird, he said, “played what was necessary to keep the rest of us from falling off our musical tracks. He was my rock and allowed me to play and explore musical regions that I could not have traveled without his support!
All of Mr. McLaughlin’s group left Mahavishnu in the mid-1970s amid disagreements over money, creative control, and the role of religion in the group. (Mr. McLaughlin was a devoted follower of spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy and wanted the group to express his teachings directly.) He would continue the group for years, using different formations.
Mr. Laird spent the remainder 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 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.
Mr. Laird released his own album, “Soft Focus”, recorded in 1976, which also starred Mr. Henderson.
But in 1982, fearing that a musician’s lifestyle might prove too unstable as he grew older, Mr. Laird embraced his other passion: photography. He had bought cameras and equipment while on tour in Japan and he started doing photoshoots for other musicians. He quickly made photography his full-time job, portraits for law firms and stock photographs for agencies.
But he also composed and recorded frequently throughout his retirement, although these projects were not officially released.
Besides his daughter, Mr. Laird is survived by his sister, Tanya Laird; his brother David; and his partner, Jane Meryll. Both of her marriages ended in divorce.
Richard Quentin Laird was born in Dublin on February 5, 1941. His father, William Desmond Laird, a building contractor, was Protestant and his mother, Margaret Muriel (The Gear) Laird, a housewife, was a Roman Catholic; although neither was particularly religious, their families did not speak to each other. Eventually, the couple split up.
At 16, Rick was sent to live – without either of his parents – on a sheep farm in New Zealand. Hoping to pursue a career in music, he eventually moved to Sydney, Australia, where he made a name for himself in the jazz scene before moving to London.
He became the home bassist of Ronnie Scott’s, a leading jazz club that often hosted musicians on international tours. There he met a range of the world’s most famous jazz talents and performed with artists like guitarist Wes Montgomery and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Engagements with saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster led to albums with them.
It was a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in Boston that brought Mr. 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 moving on. settle in New York. In the early 2000s, he moved to New City, just north of New York City, where he lived until his death.
In an interview for Guitar Player magazine in 1980, Mr. Laird spoke of a career as a backing musician.
“If you are playing a supporting role, instead of constantly playing solo, the chances of becoming well known to the average audience are very slim,” he said. “The more I refine my skills, the less I stand out.
“It’s a paradox, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think I need to stroke my ego like that.