Rick Laird, Bassist at the Forefront of Fusion, Dies at 80

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 at a hospice facility in New City, N.Y. He was 80.

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

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

The new ensemble, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which also featured the drummer Billy Cobham, the keyboardist Jan Hammer and the 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 Ever Mounting Flame” (1971) and “Birds of Fire” (1973), and one live album, “Between Nothingness & Eternity” (1973).

Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 dependable person in that band.” Mr. Laird, he said, “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!”

All of Mr. McLaughlin’s bandmates 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 the spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy and wanted the band to express his teachings directly.) He would continue the band for years, using different lineups.

Mr. 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 the keyboardist Chick Corea.

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

But in 1982, fearing that a musician’s lifestyle would prove too unstable as he grew older, Mr. Laird embraced his other passion: photography. He had bought some cameras and equipment on a tour of Japan and he 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, Mr. 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 was particularly religious, their families weren’t on speaking terms. Eventually, the couple split up.

At 16, Rick was sent to live — without either parent — on a sheep farm in New Zealand. Hoping to pursue a career in music, he eventually moved to Sydney, Australia, where he gained a reputation on the jazz scene before moving to London.

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

It was a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston that first brought Mr. Laird to the United States, in 1966. He moved to Los Angeles without graduating and joined the 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.

In an interview for Guitar Player magazine in 1980, Mr. 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.”

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