The One Skill

Paul Ellis

Many, many moons ago, when my son Duncan was 12, I was introduced by a colleague to a musician called Paul Ellis. It was Paul who taught Duncan and me about the one skill. And that lesson has travelled a long way with both of us.

Paul Ellis composed and programmed the backing tracks found on Yamaha keyboards. He and his lovely Japanese wife are both eminent jazz musicians. They had a fantastic studio at their house and Duncan was immediately engaged – in English understatement I am less musical myself.

So how about this for simplicity?

“Find a band. Rehearse with them and record everything you rehearse. Listen to the recordings for the contribution you managed to make to the music.”

The music is never the same twice. There can never be a definition of what “contribution” might mean. What is a contribution one time might not be a contribution next time. But actually in the moment there is little doubt in players or listeners what is “right”. There is little doubt about what pushes the boundaries, what grounds the flights of fancy, what is tight. Clearly this is as much about listening as playing.

If you want to hear what I am speaking of I can recommend Joey Alexander, My Favorite Things. Joey was born in 2003 in Bali, after my encounter with Paul! Taken this year to New York to play with some of the best session musicians on the planet, he is immediately in sophisticated conversation with them through the music, to an extent they find difficult to credit. He has the one skill.

I am in all probability never going to be a jazz musician. But I spend my life with small groups of committed people, including my colleagues at Thinking. And I play back in memory my interactions with them to see what I contributed to what my colleagues can do and the music we can make together. It is not about what I do, it is about what can happen. If I remain an individual everything is slow and boring: if I make the transition everything comes alive.

In my experience most of the world stays dead and plays by rote. Everyone knows and few people are prepared to notice out loud. That is why this is the one skill: how to listen and make what everyone else is doing come more alive. Not by commenting on deadness and stuckness but by turning that into something else.

In a world where even the word ‘transformation’ has become a yawn, bring the revolution back home.


Aidan Ward