“Gentle, unassuming and private.” These are the words David Gilmour chose in his eulogy of Richard Wright, Pink Floyd’s keyboard player and co-songwriter, who joined the band in 1964 and stayed with them through all of their major albums, leaving after The Wall and rejoining for A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Wright was the quiet one; drummer Nick Mason compared him to George Harrison, and like Harrison, he was also Pink Floyd's secret weapon, helping to deliver many of their most career-defining songs.
Wright may rarely get much mention in songwriting tributes to Pink Floyd’s warring leaders or its tragic elfin first singer/songwriter Syd Barrett ("had his profile been any lower,” one obituary put it, “he would have been reported missing.”), but his “soulful voice and playing were vital, magical components of our most recognized Pink Floyd sound,” Gilmour went on. “In my view, all of the greatest PF moments are the ones where he is in full flow.”
Wright’s jazz training gave an improvisatory bent. His formal music education gave him an ear for composition. He was the band’s most versatile musician, playing dozens of instruments in addition to his signature Farfisa organ, and he was equally at home writing orchestral pieces or falling into whatever groove the band cooked up, as on their sixth studio album, Meddle, which emerged from several stages of experimental methods and happy accidents like the “ping” sound Wright’s piano makes at the beginning of the sprawling epic “Echoes,” the 23-minute second side of the album.
The song continued to grow, overdub by overdub. Waters wrote lyrics, Gilmour experimented with a sound effect he’d stumbled on by plugging his wah-wah pedal in backwards. If you ask Wright, as Mojo did in their final interview with him in 2008, the year of his death, it was largely his piece. Or at least, “the whole piano thing at the beginning and the chord structure for the song is mine.”
Like so many of Wright’s compositions, “Echoes” is also a showcase for Gilmour’s soaring solos and delicate rhythm playing. The interplay between the two musicians is on transcendent display in Wright’s final, live 2006 performance of the song before he succumbed to cancer two years later, for an audience of 50,000 at the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland, recorded on the last show of Gilmour’s On an Island tour.
This is really great stuff. The filmed performance, which appears on Gilmour's album and concert film Live in Gdańsk, shows both Wright and Gilmour in top form, trading solos and creating the kind of atmosphere only those two could. Gilmour has said he’ll never perform the song again without Wright. It’s hard to imagine that he even could.
The band closed with the 20-plus-minute “Echoes” every night of the tour, and Wright brought out his old Farfisa just for the song. Given how long Gilmour and Wright had been completing each other’s virtuoso strengths as co-creators of instrumental moods, every performance on the tour was surely something special. But in hindsight, none are as moving as this one—the last time fans would ever have the experience of seeing Pink Floyd, or one version of them, recreate the magic of "Echoes" live onstage.