Rick Laird anchored the Mahavishnu Orchestra, one third of the hallowed triumvirate of seminal '70s fusion bands. Yet unlike Stanley Clarke with Return To Forever or Jaco with Weather Report, Laird never aspired to become a household name -- he just wanted to be himself. "That's the best advice I can give any musician. I loved Scott LaFaro and Charles Mingus, but my heroes were Ray Brown and Paul Chambers." Like his heroes, Laird played a supporting role, forging solid lines out of Mahavishnu's odd-time signatures or doubling only phrase-anchoring notes in blinding unison riffs. With founder/guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman seemingly driven to see who could play fastest and loudest, "someone had to say *one*," Rick recalls, "and that was me."
The quintet released two landmark albums, "The Inner Mounting Flame" and the gold-selling "Birds Of Fire" [both available on Sony Legacy] as well as the live "Between Nothingness and Eternity", but its offstage chemistry quickly grew as tempestuous as the music. "We were five testosterone-filled, immature young men suddenly thrust into the spotlight by a shrewd manager," Laird explains. "We were neither given nor did we take the time to rehearse or develop the music. As a result we ended up destroying the band by our own hand without reaching our full potential." Another problem came to light with the discovery of the master tapes of Mahavishnu's unreleased third studio album, which Sony Legacy has just issued as "The Lost Trident Sessions". "We had finally convinced John to let the rest of us write -- but he wasn't too happy about it." While everyone except Cobham contributed to the disc (which includes Laird's 'Steppings Tones'), McLaughlin's domineering, Stravinsky-meets-Indian-music vision is firmly in place. The unit broke up in '73, soon after the Trident sessions. "Overall, Mahavishnu was a very valuable learning experience, musically and personally," Rick stresses. "I'm proud of our albums."
Laird began his musical career as a teen in New Zealand, where his family had moved from his native Dublin, Ireland. Raised on the sounds of his mother's jazz records, Rick began playing bass on a guitar's low strings before being given the first Fender Bass and amp in New Zealand. He toured in a pop cover band at 18, but eventually got an upright and returned to jazz. In 1962 he hit London's fertile music scene, working with Brian Auger (whose band included McLaughlin) and taking lessons from a London Philharmonic bassist. Laird landed the house gig at Ronnie Scott's, where he backed jazz legends ranging from Ben Webster and Wes Montgomery to Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard. With an eye on coming to the U.S., he won a scholarship to Boston's Berklee in '66. There he became in demand on upright, working with such artists as Mel Torme and Zoot Sims.
In 1968, while playing in a large ensemble with guitarists John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrick, Laird returned to the electric bass "so I could be heard." Also inspiring his electric side was a 1969 Boston concert by Tony Williams's Lifetime featuring McLaughlin. Laird headed to Los Angeles soon after to join Buddy Rich's big band for a year. In 1971 he moved back to London, only to get a cable from McLaughlin asking him to come to New York to join his new group.
Following his emotionally draining years with Mahavishnu, Laird remained in New York, recording his lone solo disc, the acoustic "Soft Focus" [Timeless Music] and supplementing local gigs with tours and album dates for Chick Corea, Stan Getz, and Richie Cole. "My heart wasn't into being a musician anymore; I began to hate the hustle of being a bassist-for-hire. I felt I wasn't growing and I needed to find something else to do with my life." That came courtesy of Billy Cobham. "Billy got me into photography while touring Japan with Mahavishnu. When I settled back in New York I took lessons and built my own darkroom. Like bass, you're dealing with form, tonal relationships, and communicating an idea in the moment." Friends started asking Rick to shoot their album covers, and he gradually became a top stock photographer. (Over 500 of Rick's photos can be found at fpg.com; type in "Richard Laird.")
The 57-year-old Laird, who put down his Fenders and his 100-year-old Czech acoustic for good in 1982, recently got back into composing music on his daughter's Mac. "I have no agenda. It's just for my own enjoyment. Besides, I've come to realize our main gig on this planet is not what we do for a living -- it's to find out who we are, and to learn how to love ourselves and love others."
Made avalible by Rod Sibley
This page confirms that Rick played with Roland Kirk, Ben Webster, Wes Montgomery, Zoot Sims, and Benny Golson: