Killer groove

August 17, 2007


One of the unexpected highlights of last month's Pitchfork Music Festival, the New York quartet Professor Murder is something that's become increasingly rare on the music scene: a band whose primary goal is to make people dance.

"I know exactly what you mean when you say it's not really cool to say you're a dance band anymore," keyboardist and percussionist Jesse Cohen says. "But at the same time, I think we don't really look at it that way. Kids do still like to dance, they're just not going to hear bands anymore; they go out to hear people like Spank Rock [rapper Naeem Juwan and producer Alex Epton] and Girl Talk [DJ Gregg Gillis].

"I was thinking after seeing Girl Talk play at Pitchfork that it used to be bands that made people freak out like that; now, it's a guy who's playing music off his computer. I actually think it represents a kind of sophistication, where people are more open-minded to artists who make music in a way that may be a bit less tangible than a band. But I'm not surprised that we've played with Girl Talk a bunch of times -- it makes a lot of sense to me."

Indeed, with its polyrhythmic grooves, chanted choruses and layered electronic melodies, Professor Murder ultimately was every bit as entertaining at Pitchfork as the hyper-energetic Gillis, whose show had to be shut down early because it drew so many fans. And the band's 2006 debut, the "Professor Murder Rides the Subway" EP, was just as strong, as well as a rare example of well-warranted Pitchfork hyperbole. ("I love music that covers big ground in small time without feeling rushed or overambitious," reviewer Sam Ubl wrote. "It's like the 'Star Trek' fantasy of traversing the universe on a button's push.")

According to Cohen, the group, which took its name from a sketch on the old HBO comedy series "Mr. Show," came together almost by accident.

"[Bassist] Tony [Plunkett] and [keyboardist-vocalist] Michael [Bell-Smith] went to college together and started playing music, and Professor Murder was one of these kinds of college bands that may not have even really existed; they were just two guys who played music and were big friends and then moved to New York." There, they recruited another friend, drummer Andy Craven, and started out as a melodic punk trio with a guitar/bass/drums lineup in the mold of the Jam.

"Then they bought this little synthesizer and decided they wanted to try to do something else with their music," Cohen says. "Since I was living with Mike at the time, basically I came in to play that, and then Mike stopped playing guitar, and things really started to shift around from there. Everyone sort of agreed that the music they were making didn't really reflect anything they were listening to, which was more dance- or beat-oriented music, like rap and techno, electronic music and dancehall. There was definitely a conscious effort to get to the point where everyone in the band sort of treats their instrument as a percussion element."

Cohen says the band's songs come together via another word that's become anathema in the hipster underground: jamming.

"We practice and we jam a lot; we'll record ourselves and take pieces that we like and basically start combining them. No one is a songwriter; no one ever comes to practice and has a whole song written. It's more like, 'Have you heard the keyboard line in the DJ Khaled song? We should totally do a keyboard line that sounds like that!' "

The group is gearing up to release another 12-inch single (the track, "Dutch Hex," is already posted on its MySpace page at, and a second EP likely will follow this fall.

"We don't really feel any pressure to do anything except projects that we think would be fun," Cohen says. "I think we all kind of have an attitude about the band where this is a way that we can do interesting things, like going out to Chicago or some other city, with the purpose of playing music for people we don't know and meeting them and talking to them. If music is the way that we get to do things like that, that's great."

And if people dance in the process, well, that's even better.

Fest keeps reggae real
Speaking of great dance bands, nothing gets a crowd moving better than a real reggae groove (as opposed to the ham-handed rhythms hammered out by countless clueless bar bands), and the right riddims are sure to be in evidence Saturday at the inaugural Chicago Reggae Festival at Union Park at Randolph and Ashland.

The music starts at 12:30 in the afternoon and runs through 10 p.m., with performers including Morgan Heritage, composed of five children of the renowned reggae artist Denroy Morgan; the vocal trio Culture; singer Queen Ifrica; global chart-topper Junior Kelly, and Chicago resident Kofi, a founding member of the Roots, Stems & Branches Band in his native Caribbean nation of Dominica.

Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the gate, and children 12 and younger are free with an adult admission. To purchase tickets and for a schedule of the performers, visit or call (773) 868-3010.