Jazz Bassist with Richie Cole, Buddy Rich, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra

By Arnie Berle

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: July 1980)

Diversification of skills is becoming an increasingly rare pursuit in an age when the complexity of everyday life almost demands a high degree of specialization. But 39-year-old bassist Rick Laird has been successful in the jazz, jazz-rock, rock, and studio fields. Proficient on both acoustic and electric instruments, he has also expanded into teaching and writing instructional books. When he isn't working on music, Rick is a professional photographer-just another part of his muItifaceted personality.
Laird is best known for his role as the bass player of the premier fusion band of the early Seventies, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, from its inception in June 1971 until late December 1973. Laird's solid, economical lines in conjunction with Billy Cobham's meticulous, powerful drumming provided a strong anchor for the odd-tempo and often volatile solos of guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist Jerry Goodman, and keyboardist Jan Hammer. With that band, he recorded Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, and Between Nothingness And Eternity. But this two-and-a-half year segment of Rick Laird's 20-year career only accounts for a small portion of his work. As a journeyman bassist he toured the world with, recorded for, and supported some of the biggest jazz stars, including drummer Buddy Rich, saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims, guitarist Wes Montgomery, keyboardist Chick Corea, bandleader Buddy DeFranco, and saxophonist Stan Getz. No stranger to New York's studios, Laird has recorded numerous soundtracks, jingles, and practically every other form of music. He teaches electric and acoustic bass, and as a result has written two books, Jazz Riffs For Bass and lmprovising Jazz Bass (both are available from Amsco Publ.). He also plays gigs as a sideman at clubs in New York City.
A native of Dublin, Ireland, born on February 5, 1941, Rick had a strong interest in music even in his early childhood, and was exposed to many different forms; his mother played piano in a variety of styles, ranging from the boogie woogie of Fats Waller to the neoclassical impressionism of Claude Debussy. Rick's father had a ukulele, and the young boy began fiddling around on that and the piano when he was only three years old. "Even at that early age I began understanding chord symbols," he states. "I was even reading lead sheets by the time I was five."
Around that time, Rick began taking formal piano lessons. He didn't do well, and subsequently dropped them. Instead of seeking another instrument, Laird funneled his energy into drawing and painting-a pursuit which lasted until he completed high school. When he was about 12, Rick picked up a Spanish guitar and started lessons. Frustrated because the teacher used a book that was too difficult, he again abandoned lessons. By then his mother had been listening to jazz pianists Errol Garner and George Shearing as well as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and Rick began absorbing those sounds. "As a matter of fact," he adds, "my mother bought me a pair of drum brushes and had me play along with those records."
Only when Rick was 16, and had moved with his father to New Zealand, did he begin taking a serious interest in playing: "While I was working on a sheep farm I picked up an Australian guitar called a Maton. I got some chord books and also practiced by playing along with the radio." Not long after that, Laird moved to the city of Auckland and lived in a house with several young musicians. All had various day jobs, since there wasn't much musical work available. While living there, Rick was exposed to many new jazz artists. "One day they played a record by [pianist] Oscar Peterson, with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar," he says, "and I was blown away by Ray Brown's playing. He was doing such incredible things, so I started playing bass lines on my guitar."
Rick and his housemates used to jam a lot. One of his friends played trumpet, another played drums, and Rick played guitar. He found more and more that he was instinctively utilizinging bass lines rather than chords. He bought a string bass and started playing along with records again. "I'd play along with Ray Brown and try to figure out what he was doing," he recalls. "About two weeks after I got the bass I received a call from a guy who asked me if I would like to work on weekends with his band. I told him that I was only a beginner and didn't know any tunes, but he said that he would teach me all the chords that I would have to know. So I quit my day job and at the age of 18 became a professional bass player." After working for only a few weekends, Laird quit and joined another group which toured all over New Zealand. In that band was keyboardist Mike Nock, currently a studio player in New York.
Besides working in the ensemble, Rick spent much of his free time learning various changes. He says, "I found out from other musicians what records to listen to in order to hear good bass players, such as those by Charlie Mingus and Oscar Pettiford. FortunateIy I had good ears, and I was able to learn a lot just by listening to those great musicians." Working out the bass lines wasn't always easy, especially when the artists that Laird was learning from were among the most technically proficient of the day. He often found himself just groping around for notes-he was able to hear what he wanted, but finding their locations on the fingerboard was a challenge. As his technique advanced, his attention was focused not only upon bassists such as Brown, Paul Chambers, and Percy Heath, but on other jazz powerhouses like trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane.
Upon completion of the New Zealand tour, 19-year-old Rick and several other musicians decided to move to Sydney, Australia, where there was a more active jazz scene. In his two-year stay there, Laird worked with many, excellent players, including one of Australia's leading jazz musicians, clarinetist Don Burrows. Despite his lack of proficiency at sight-reading, Rick's style was solid enough to get him hired. Much of his experience then came from performing with jazz quartets on radio shows. "Aside from the chord charts they gave me, I also had to read some bass parts," he says. "By luck, it sounded good. Invariably I'd come up with something that was close to what was written, if not exactly what was written. I guess by that time I still hadn't made a full commitment to music, and I was too lazy to confront the problem of learning to read well. I liked music, and I enjoyed the bass, but I still wasn't sure if that's what I wanted to do. Nonetheless, I kept playing; my ambition was to eventually get to the United States. But instead, I was encouraged to go to England, which I did in 1962."
Once in England, Rick began working with the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. He toured with them throughout Europe, and shortly after returning to England played bass for Zoot Sims and saxophonist Al Cohn when they appeared at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. Afterwards, Rick freelanced for a short time, and then joined keyboardist Brian Auger's rock band, which featured John McLaughlin on guitar. Conflicts arose between Auger and Laird because Rick's main interest was still with jazz. "I listened to rock," he says, "but I thought it was too limited for my tastes. Also Brian wanted me to switch to Fender bass. I was still playing only upright then, it was amplified, but he wanted the sound of the electric because of the music we were playing. I told him there was no way that I was going to switch. Then, in 1964, [saxophonist] Ronnie Scott offered me the job as house bassist at the club. So I became a part of the house rhythm section and got to play with all the jazz greats; I remained there for two years."
For Laird, his tenure at the club was a tremendous learning experience; he played for one month with each of a succession of horn players such as Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He also accompanied the late jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
Rick found the visiting musicians agreeable to work with; they allowed him and the rest of the rhythm section a great deal of freedom, rarely complaining, and only offering constructive criticism. Because of his desire to expand his musical knowledge, Laird was constantly asking the various heavyweights for tips, and they almost always offered helpful comments. "I was asking questions like what kinds of scales they were playing over certain chords," he says. "It was a very valuable experience. For example, Ben Webster was not very verbal when it came to explaining things, but nonetheless we had many great conversations. He couldn't always explain what he was doing, but he played incredibly-and all from the gut. He said something that I'll never forget. I was complaining about conditions as a musician, and he said, 'Well, after the first 20 years it gets easier.' Now that I'm in my twentieth year I'm beginning to understand what he meant."
Thirsting for more knowledge, Rick studied from 1963 to'64 at London's Guild Hall school. There he learned bowing techniques from a classical bassist and in the meantime continued to pick up ideas from records as well. And from his work at Ronnie Scott's he received a call from saxophonist Sonny Rollins to record the soundtrack for the movie Alfie in 1965. "When Sonny Rollins called me from New York and asked me to do it, I was really thrilled," Laird recalls. "It was really interesting, because we had no music to work from. We just went to the studio, and while they ran the film for us we improvised to the scenes taking place on the screen. We had a few basic themes, but for the most part it was all spontaneous."
Soon after recording with Rollins, Rick won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. "I had made a tape of something I did with Stan Getz," he explains. The performance was never released as a record, so I sent a copy of it to Berklee, and they gave me a scholarship. So in 1966 I played my last gig at Ronnie's with [flautist] Yusef Lateef, and then left for Boston. It was perfect, because it got me to the States-where I had always wanted to be. I felt that I really had to confront my lack of musical education, and now was the time. I had plenty of experience with practical application, but not enough theoretical background to balance it. I felt that going to school was the best way to round out my education."
While at Berklee, Rick studied arranging, composition, and string bass. He had come to the school wanting to learn how to write, and opportunities abounded. "I wrote for the ensembles, as well as the big bands they had there, and I found that my reading also improved," he says. "It certainly wasn't easy, though, because I was playing gigs at night until really late and had to be at class early each morning." At Berklee, Rick also learned new fingering and bowing approaches. And although some were difficult for him to accept, he nonetheless was able to incorporate them in his style.
After two years at Berklee, Laird left. He still writes music, but since leaving the school he has pursued his own methodology-in effect tossing the books aside-in order to write intuitively.
In 1968 Rick's frustration with not being heard well enough while playing string bass prompted him to try his hand at the electric. He was playing in a band that included guitarists John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrick, and found that his work was becoming more and more futile. So he borrowed a friend's Yamaha electric bass and an Ampeg amp, took them directly to a job (without even practicing on them on his own), and found that his sound took on new, broader dimensions. "It was the first time the guys could hear the bass parts," he says. "We were playing these great arrangements of Beatles tunes done by [composer] Mike Gibbs, and with the electric it sounded like it should've all the time. I was just using any kind of technique I could get by with and from then on I didn't touch the upright for about four years."
Laird found the electric only slightly awkward at first, but concluded that knowing what notes to play was of greater importance than technique. "The instrument is just a tool to communicate with; it's just a means towards an end. I could play jazz gigs on fretless bass now and use exactly the same basic concepts that I use on the upright. Personally, I prefer the sound of the upright as far as soloing and blending with acoustic instruments are concerned. But I like the fretless in other situations, such as when I must switch between rock and fusion music. Also, the fretless gives a nice, singing sound.
After leaving Berklee in 1969, Rick accepted a job with jazz drummer Buddy Rich, seeing it as the chance to travel throughout America. The band also went to England and played at Ronnie Scott's. Rick was fired from the band several times, but refused to leave; he would show up, plug in, and play-despite his boss's orders. He recalls, "This went on for about five firings, but we got along musically very well. He is an incredible big band drummer, with an uncanny ability to find all the right places to accent things, plus he's just a dynamo, physically, the way he drives the band."
A year-and-a-half after joining Rich's band, Laird left for good. He decided that between jobs he would return to England to visit. While there, he received a call from John McLaughlin asking him to join his new band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin already had assembled keyboardist Jan Hammer, drummer Billy Cobham, and violinist Jerry Goodman for the venture-the only element missing was a bassist. Rick was immediately impressed with McLaughlin's discipline and commitment to self-improvement. John had become a vegetarian, had given up smoking, and was studying with his guru, Sri Chinmoy. "He had incredible energy; he was full-force all the time," Laird recalls. "The funny thing with the group, though, was we were the most unlikely people to associate with one another socially. But even though we had never played together before, there was a certain chemistry that was immediately apparent-it gave the band a uniqueness."
To aid in the creation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music, some basic charts were occasionally written out-mostly in odd time signatures, many of which Rick had never encountered previously. The band was also many times louder than anything he had dealt with; he was using two Sunn Coliseum amps with three cabinets-two with four 12" JBLs and one with a single 18" speaker. The group practiced in New York's Greenwich Village five days a week, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Each member contributed his own arrangement for his share of the music, even though rough melodic sketches were sometimes employed. For example, McLaughlin would write a chord symbol using a triad over a bass note, such as Eb/A. From there, the musicians would create scales to play over that combination."
After only six weeks together, the Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded their first album, Inner Mounting Flame. "It took only two days to record," Rick recalls. "After that we were a sensation. Everything took off, fast and furious. There was no time to stop and evaluate our direction. Then there were conflicts with the band: We were all contributing equally to the material, yet we felt that John was receiving a disproportionate share of the royalties. The rest of us haven't seen a cent since the band broke up in 1975. This led to a lot of discontent. And we fell into patterns so much that for the last year or so with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I was intensely bored. I think we all were."
Disillusioned after the breakup of McLaughlin's group in 1975, Rick decided to quit playing bass for a while and look a one-year hiatus in Spain, immersing himself in photography, meeting new friends and seeing the sights. When he returned to New York, he found himself at a crossroads, trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He enrolled in the New York School Of Visual Arts to study photography. His landscapes and abstracts were accepted at a gallery on 57th Street, and Rick was becoming ever more proficient in his new pursuit. Nonetheless, he felt that he would like to play bass again. "It was very, very difficult to get back into it," he recalls. "I really didn't know anyone in New York, and I was laboring under the misconception that just because I had been with the Mahavishnu Orchestra that the phone would be ringing all day and night. The fact was, though, that I didn't work for over a year."
Rick was asked to join various rock bands, and even played for a short time with Hall & Oates; none were satisfactory for his style, so he declined any further offers. In 1978 he toured with keyboardist Chick Corea's band. "I had admired him tremendously as a musician since I first saw him in Boston in 1966. When I heard that he was putting a band together to tour the world, I knew that Stanley Clarke wasn't going to go with him since he was busy with his own tours. So I wrote to Chick and told him that I was available. He wrote back and said I was hired. It was a totally different experience from working with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. First of all, we had a 13-piece band which included a string quartet, and we had Dave Leibman on saxophone. We played a mixture of music from Chick's albums and some Spanish-oriented music-some sambas, jazz tunes, and some pretty conventional things. We went to Australia, which was great because it was the first time I had been back since I left in the '60s. We played to sell-out concerts wherever we went."
After returning to the States, Laird joined Stan Getz's band for a tour, playing mainly standards. In London, they performed in conjunction with a symphony orchestra recording that was ultimately the soundtrack for the French film Death Of A Rogue. Rick also toured Europe with one of his long-time idols, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson.
In the last year, Laird has been freelancing in New York's studios and jazz clubs. In November 1979 he played at the Mexico City Jazz Festival with bandleader Buddy DeFranco. In that same month Rick rehearsed and recorded with Jeff Beck, Jan Hammer, and drummer Simon Phillips in London. Although a tour was planned, it was shelved. Rick's current work includes playing with four other New York-based musicians collectively known as Timepiece.
Laird also teaches privately. Describing his second book, Improvising Jazz Bass, Rick says, "It's sort of a combination of everything I've thought about or played over the last 20 years. It's not a technique book, but a collection of material on what to play after you've gotten some chops. I've avoided giving fingerings because it's for both standup and electric bass, and I wanted to avoid confusion. Also I've come to the point where I believe that a musical idea is far more important than the fingering. If you hear something-I mean really hear it-your fingering will go there anyway. Another thing I believe is that the process of discovery is very important. That is, if you want to learn something, go after it and obtain some knowledge. It's usually better if you earn it. You don't get anything for nothing."
When Rick set out to write his books, he decided not to keep the beginner in mind. Instead, he skipped elementary concepts and fingerings. "There is a lot of data out there on fingering already, but it very rarely leads to playing music," he says. "In my private teaching I will correct bad fingerings if I see any, but I don't take beginners. So by the time students come to me they already know how to finger their instruments. I'd rather work on musical ideas, and I believe in having students play their ideas in as many positions as they can. I also work on pentatonic scales a lot, and we do a lot of scale work with chords. If a bassist sees a Cmaj7+11 chord it's important to know what scales can be played with it, as well as what to do with that chord if you want to play a walking line, or a fusion-style jazz line. In a time built on II-V-I changes, I would consider both the II and the V as being in the same mode. For instance, if the chord change was Dm7 to G7, I might play D, C, B, and then G. I like the idea of a 7th going down to the 3rd in the bass line. Paul Chambers always did that."
Rick feels that it's important that the bass player be concerned with making his or her instrument the foundation of the group, even though it may mean sacrificing a bit of flash. He believes that all too often bass players are forgetting their function and are focusing too much attention on soloing. He thinks that some of them might be better suited to other instruments, such as the flute. "I don't disapprove of all displays of virtuosity on the part of bass players," he says, "but the reason why a lot of guys call me for work is because I support them. I really love the challenge of playing good lines behind a soloist in a way that boosts him, and when it comes my time for a solo then I'II jump right in."
Rick believes that as his skills as a bass player increase he finds himself featured less and less. This, he feels, is due to focusing his attention on supporting the other players so solidly. "If you play a supportive role, instead of soloing constantly, the chances of becoming well-known by the average audience are very slim," he states. "Musicians and bass fans will notice you. But if you play flashy, meaningless runs all the time, everyone will notice you. If a guy wants to do that, it's his business. Frankly, it's never meant that much to me. 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."
Since he first made the switch to electric (he still plays his 150-year-old English string bass on some sessions), Laird has gone through a succession of instruments. His first was a Guild Starfire, which was replaced by a Fender Jazz Bass (used on Inner Mounting Flame), and then a Dan Armstrong with a clear Plexiglas body, another Fender (a Precision), and a 1976 Carl Thompson; finally he arrived upon his present bread-and-butter axe: a 1961 Fender Jazz Bass with Bartolini Hi-A pickups and a DiMarzio brass bridge. He removed the frets and filled the slots with white epoxy, so now it acts as a fretless although the fret markers remain. On sessions requiring a fretted instrument, Rick takes his S.D. Curlee; he is also testing one of Stanley Clarke's Spellbinder basses.
Each three months, Laird replaces his light-gauge Dean Markley Half-Round strings and rarely changes them more frequently, because he likes them to "break in." To keep them from corroding and to lubricate them, he sprays Finger Ease on the strings regularly.
In most cases, Rick uses a Polytone Mlni-Brute amp with a single 12" JBL speaker. When more power is needed, he takes his Acoustic 362-such occurrences are rare; he doesn't like to play at high volumes after the mega-decibel assaults he endured during his Mahavishnu Orchestra days. And in staying with his straightforward approach, Rick only uses one effect-an old Maestro phaser-because he feels that the bass (particularly the fretless) is in itself full of expressiveness and affords plenty of opportunities for tonal variation. Even with the Mahavishnu Orchestra he used only a Morley volume pedal.
Despite its ups and downs, Rick feels that his 20-year career has so far been a positive experience. "It's been an incredible trip," he says. "I could write volumes about it. I've gotten around the world a few times, and I've played with the finest musicians on the planet. And it's taught me a hell of a lot about music, and about life."
To young players who aren't sure if pursuing the bass would be a viable profession, he offers: "Hang on to your dreams. It can happen. I had outrageous dreams-I wanted to play with Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and a lot of other great people. Guess what? I've played with them all. It takes determination and a clear target. You have to set your own goals and persist. What I do advise my students, though, is, if you have a chance to further your education-go to college-then do it. Grab it! There's nothing wrong with a second skill. It could even enhance your music. You can choose that career or music then, but regardless of your choice, you'll always have that other avenue open to you."