Klezmer Continued, with Benjamin Sutin of Klazz-Ma-Tazz

Benjamin Sutin is a jazz/klezmer violinist, composer, educator and founder of Klazz-Ma-Tazz who finds both jazz and klezmer inspirational. He is a leader and sideman who has played venues including Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, the Apollo Theater and many others. For more info on his band, please see the new book “Klezmer for the Joyful Soul” at https://bit.ly/klezmerjoyfulsoul.

Was your initial attraction to klezmer because you grew up listening to it, or did your musical or spiritual exploration bring you there?

I grew up listening to and playing Jewish music in my synagogue’s congregation bands and around the house, but not specifically klezmer. That came later. I started getting my feet wet in the summer of 2012 when I met Yale Strom at a summer string camp at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I would study with him on and off from that point forward.

Then in the winter of 2013/2014 I went to Israel on Birthright. Although I wouldn’t consider myself too religious (more spiritual), from that point forward it was important for to me explore my roots in some capacity and doing it via my music was the most natural path. At the time I was studying jazz violin at Manhattan School of Music and still exploring my voice on the instrument and within the jazz idiom. My private instructor was Sara Caswell (violinist for David Krakauer’s “Big Picture”). David was also on faculty at MSM and after going through many hoops I was able to form an MSM Klezmer Ensemble in my senior year directed by David himself.

My klezmer instruction from Strom and Krakauer combined with my jazz training paved a genuine path forward for my musical voice that finally made sense to me, something I called, “Klazz” (a fusion of jazz and klezmer as the name suggests). This was all coupled with motivation I received from my then-roommate and good friend, bassist Mat Muntz to start a band dedicated to this very concept, and hence Klazz-Ma-Tazz was born. 

Why do you play it today?

Klezmer is my blues. It’s very much the blues of the Jewish people. That is something I can relate to on a deep and personal level. I believe all musicians need something that not just inspires them artistically but that motivates and moves them spiritually. For me, that something is klezmer and Jewish music. That’s where my musical soul derives, it’s the root of my passion.

There is a very rich history of jazz musicians fusing the folk music of their roots into what they bring to jazz while still being jazz musicians. To that end, I would consider myself primarily a jazz musician, drawing on my Jewish roots as a means of expressing my inner passion and life experiences via jazz.

As a side note, I continue to study klezmer fiddling on and off with Alicia Svigals (founding member of the Klezmatics).  

What are the elements that resonate the most with you: the melodies, harmonies, rhythm, lyrics (when applicable) or other?

For me it’s an odd combination of all of the above. I find klezmer extremely powerful and therapeutic, pulling at such a wide range of emotions all at once. It’s undoubtedly sad, pensive and nostalgic at times. But it’s also always uplifting, optimistic and full of joy, finding the silver lining in life, full of a sense of humor, playfulness and a carefree attitude. Life is a mix of sadness and joy yet arguably always with a strange sense of comedy or irony. Life can be straight up weird. I feel like klezmer captures all of this on such a deep level more so than any other genre of music.

Why do you think as an art form that it has survived?

I’m not a historian so I can’t speak for precisely why. What I can say is that klezmer is a way for us as a Jewish people to keep our memories and traditions alive and thriving from generation to generation.  

What are some of your favorite songs?

I’ve never been one for favorites. I have a laundry list of arrangements and compositions to write, projects to head and albums to record, all involving klezmer and Jewish music dear to my heart.

While my first album (“Tangibility”) mostly explored combining elements of klezmer in original jazz compositions, which is an endless exploration, of course, my second album (“Meshugenah”) explored some of the old Yiddish Theater and folk tunes (such as Mein Shtetele Belz, Sunrise Sunset, and Tumbalalaika) in a modern jazz context, and my latest album (“Hard Bop Hanukkah”) is a live recording full of hard bop arrangements of popular Hanukkah classics such as Dreidel, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah and Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov

Why do you like playing klezmer as part of an ensemble, and what brings in the audience?

Playing (traditional) klezmer in an ensemble is a much different experience than my default and primary experience of playing in a jazz ensemble. There’s a much stronger sense of community, teamwork and common purpose. It’s less individualistic and often a greater sense of joy and play (less serious in nature, while still taking the music itself seriously).

klezmer has always been a means of bringing people together (namely at large celebrations and gatherings such as bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings). The very nature of klezmer is that it’s entertainment; it’s dance music. It’s nearly impossible to listen to klezmer and not at the very least tap your foot, dance, sob, be moved in some way or other. When performing klezmer, the trance of the music takes over both the musician and the audience – you can’t escape it – and brings everyone together in the most beautiful humanistic dance (literally and figuratively). 

For more information visit www.bensutinmusic.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke  

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