Playlist: Scenes from the Winding Path of Rick Laird

It's incomplete (blame Spotify) but astounding all the same....

You have to marvel about the paths some people carve through a life in music.

Today’s case in point: Irish bassist Rick Laird, who died on July 4 at age 80. If he’s known at all, it’s for being a founding member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and an integral part of its most influential recordings. He was also a photographer with a gift for capturing musicians offstage, in unguarded moments.

Prior to Mahavishnu, Laird was a part of several fruitful jazz “scenes:” In Australia, he played in a group with the forward-thinking pianist and composer Mike Nock (look him up!). In London, he worked with keyboardist Brian Auger pre-Oblivion Express, and served as part of the house band at Ronnie Scott’s famed club, where he backed up Sonny Stitt and others. Through that gig, Laird landed tours with the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and studio work with Sonny Rollins on the soundtrack to the film Alfie.

In one of several Laird-related discographical quirks, the bassist isn’t listed on the Rollins Alfie album. But he’s spoken about recording live in the studio for the film soundtrack several times. Laird’s name continues to turn up on assorted “live at Ronnie Scott’s” vault discoveries, including an expansive 1965 date with Rollins and another in a band led by woodwind legend Yusef Lateef. Both are featured on this playlist.

Laird had an alert, highly flexible approach to upright bass, and though he initially resisted playing electric, when he finally did, he brought a deep and distinctively round sound to the instrument. He played with Buddy Rich for a bit, contributed to one of Annie Ross’ crossover recordings, made wildly individual fusion-leaning music away from Mahavishnu (a 1974 gem led by keyboardist Clive Stevens), and toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea, among many others.

Lamentably, some of Laird’s most interesting work as a sideman has not yet made it to the streaming realm: He was part of the band called Timepiece put together by flautist, saxophonist and composer Gerry Niewood. Its 1977 debut Gerry Niewood and Timepiece is an outlier of ‘70s jazz: It’s shaped  by an orchestrator’s sense of density and texture, but is driven by a spry un-jazzlike rhythmic lightness. Grab if you see it in a shop.

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