Rick Laird, member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and bass session legend, dies aged 80

Rick Laird
(Image credit: vCaem/Hanekroot/Redferns via Getty)

Rick Laird, bass guitar session legend and member of pioneering jazz fusion band the Mahavishnu Orchestra, has died aged 80.

The news was confirmed by Laird’s Mahavishnu Orchestra bandmates in a series of social media posts on Sunday (July 4), with the jazz fusion outfit’s guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham paying tribute to the late bass great.

No cause of death has been confirmed, though a Reddit post appearing to be composed by Laird’s daughter revealed that he had begun hospice care earlier this year.

Writing on Twitter, McLaughlin wrote, “RIP brother Rick Laird. What great memories we have. Miss you!!!”

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Cobham also posted an extended eulogy to his official 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 continued. “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.”

Born in Dublin in 1941, Laird moved to New Zealand at the age of 16 and began to pursue music as a career. Upon returning to the UK in 1962, the emerging bass aficionado had already acquired extensive experience touring the New Zealand and Australian jazz scenes.

Laird, who initially specialized in the upright bass, then took up a spot in Ronnie Scott’s house band at the jazz legend’s iconic music club in Soho, London, and continued his prolific early touring career alongside keyboard powerhouse Brain Auger. It is during these years that Laird met soon-to-be bandmate John McLaughlin.

Still only 25 years old, Laird earned a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and soon became an involved member in the local music scene after picking up the electric bass guitar.

Laird and McLaughlin, together with Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman, became the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 – a jazz fusion group revered for its intense, complex arrangements, fierce blends of classical music, rock and jazz, and dynamic live performances.

The band, with whom Laird played from 1971 to 1973, released two studio albums in its first incarnation – The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire – and a live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity, with Laird later releasing his own album as a bandleader, 1979’s Soft Focus.

Aside from his experience with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Laird’s star-studded credits include a number of high-profile jazz legends, including Wes Montgomery, Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson and Buddy Rich, whose band Laird joined in 1969.

Upon retiring from music in 1982, Laird took up photography, and went on to lead a successful career snapping the likes of Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Elvin Jones and Keith Jarrett.

The news of Laird’s passing has been met with an outpouring of tributes from the music world, with jazz drummer Gary Husband writing, “I was aware of so much great work he had done years before the ‘70s, and in my opinion The Mahavishnu Orchestra had the perfect bassist in Rick. I absolutely loved what he did in the band.

“So saddened to hear of his passing,” he continued. “RIP dear sir. Thank you for your massive contribution, all your fantastic photography & loveliness of spirit.”

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.