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System Dialing Records: Artist-Run and Gaining Speed

Musicians are like anyone else: They want to work with people they like, get paid for what they do, and make something they can be proud of. As professional New York musicians, Jordan McLean and Amir Ziv had made lots of music they were proud of and knew there was much more to come. At the same time they were tired of signing over their rights to record companies, so they asked the question: Why not start their own record company? “Everyone told us we were nuts,” Ziv said.

They turned to a friend and mentor for advice. Jac Holzman knew a thing or two about starting a label from scratch. He had founded Elektra Records in his college dorm room and went on to sign such acts as The Doors, Queen, Carly Simon, and Judy Collins. Holzman recognized drive when he saw it, and he saw no reason to think McLean and Ziv were crazy. “Pretend you’re right,” he told them, “and go ahead.”

Nine years later, the company they founded, System Dialing Records, is still forging ahead. It has released twelve albums and a number of singles and videos. One thing SDR’s projects all share is that Ziv and McLean produce them: directing, recording, designing, and storytelling. The one thing they lack is predictability.

Butterfly Starpower paired two veteran guitarists of the punk world, Patti Smith’s Lenny Kaye and DOA’s Dave Gregg, with singer Mariposa Davis, who was five years old at the time and sang better if she was holding her pony stick. Other collaborators were more seasoned. Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood contributed an album of solo Piedmont blues (Lockwood), a form he absorbed from an old Piedmont transplant known as Carolina Slim in the subways and streets of New York. And free-jazz founder Ornette Coleman collaborated with Ziv and McLean on New Vocabulary, which music critic Kevin Whitehead described as “lightning in a bottle” and “like no other Ornette Coleman record.” The project featured another friend: keyboardist Adam Holzman, son of Jac Holzman and musical director for Miles Davis during his electric period.

In contributing their own solo projects, McLean and Ziv follow advice they received from Ornette Coleman: “Do it the way you want to do it.” Jordan McLean contributed contemporary chamber music with Uncomplete Works Vol. 1 and Piano Music & Song Trio. Ziv’s compositional palette ranges from solo drum set (Tympanum) to large-ensemble percussion works (Pop It!’s Drum For Your Life), which emerged from another interest System Dialing was created to serve: the teaching of music to serious students through the Living Arts Apprenticeship Program (LAAP), an immersive, cross-disciplinary experience. Drum For Your Life blends drums and percussion, voices, brass, and electronics in compositions recorded by students from around the world coming together to study percussion, composition (aided by Jordan McLean) and aikido (under the guidance of sixth dan aikido master Gadi Shorr).

Together, Ziv and McLean’s musical interests span a range of musical styles that might be loosely termed urban. Amir Ziv’s band Kotkot captures improvisational high-energy NYC downtown jazz (on Alive At Tonic) with guitarist Marc Ribot and Paul Simon percussionist Cyro Baptista. Droid, a live electronica band, explores the more complex cousin of electronic dance music (on NYC D n B and The Latest In Roman Fashion) with bassists Tim Lefebvre and Yossi Fine.

Yet another interest is cinematic rock, foundation of McLean and Ziv’s current band, “Directors.” In a society that can sometimes be several layers of media deep, the band chose the name Directors, McLean explained, as an invitation to audience and musicians alike: “We’re all creating this moment together. Let’s be in our movie right now.” Communication is important to the band. Directors’ front man, Sahr Ngaujah, is an actor as well as a singer. (On Broadway, Sahr took the lead role as Nigerian singer Fela Kuti in Bill T. Jones’s FELA! Savvy viewers may recognize Ngaujah in Netflix’s Luke Cage or as the voice of Overwatch’s Doomfist.)

Directors’ own style of cinematic rock echoes the sound of New York, fusing punk, pop, hip-hop, and R&B. The five band members reflect the mother city’s diversity, with backgrounds ranging from Israel to West Africa, from India to Puerto Rico. “Directors” is Sahr Ngaujah on vocals; Jordan McLean, on trumpet, keys, vocals; Amir Ziv on drums and vocals; as well as “Low Mentality” bassist/singer Nikhil P. Yerewadekar and Ricardo Quinones on electric guitar/vocals. The band just wrapped up a three-month residency at NuBlu. ACTION!the band’s debut EP, will come out on a 12" LP — 45rpm, for extra fatness in tone. The band will celebrate the release of ACTION! at Joe’s Pub on January 28th.

New SDR recordings for 2019 will include:

  • The debut 10-inch 45rpm EP from Armo, a six-piece band that brings together members of Antibalas and other Daptone Records family
  • New electro-acoustic music from Jordan McLean and Droid
  • The first album from Beat Masters, a percussion trio with Amir Ziv, Cyro Baptista, and Billy Martin (Medeski Martin Wood.)