Monday, November 13, 2023

NY Baltic ’23: Machina Faust

When reviewing music, I try to approach it more like literature. Instead of analyzing the minutiae of technique, I prefer to focus on thematic elements, because it means more to average readers/listeners. Such an approach would surely be fruitful with the work of Estonian alto saxophonist and composer Maria Faust. It is easy to understand why from her fearlessly revealing documentary profile, Kaupo Kruusiauk’s Machina Faust, which screens virtually as part of the 2023 New York Baltic Film Festival.

Faust is not hugely popular in the United States, but she is not a complete unknown either. She is quite well-known in Denmark, where she studied, and her native Estonia. Yet, she is still far from immune from the pressures facing most working jazz musicians. The pandemic did not help either. It also put a strain on her relationship with American tenor saxophonist Ned Ferm.

Ferm works quite a bit as a sideman, including with Faust, but rarely as a leader, so Faust’s acclaim adds further elements of stress to their relationship. There is even more to it than that. Rather courageously, Faust confides to Kruusiauk (and the audience) she is the survivor of domestic abuse. She is considering a long-form composition addressing the subject, but she is uncertain whether she wants to endure the scrutiny and trolling such a project would spur. In light of these thoughts, she also starts to question some of the dysfunctional elements of her current relationship.

Machina Faust
only runs an economical 78 minutes, but it will be the cornerstone of Faust studies (and there will probably be many) for years to come. If only we had a film like this for Billie Holiday. Kruusiauk lets Faust to speak for herself—and her honesty has considerable bite—especially for herself.

Nevertheless, many jazz fans will wish Kruusiauk had incorporated much more of her music. We hear excerpts from her albums,
Organ, Mass of Mary, and MOnuMENT, but a good deal of the performances are culled from rehearsals, so they are fragmentary by nature. Faust’s music is somewhat avant-garde. Her conceptions of melody and harmony are looser than hard bop, but still structured and accessible. Her music is also highly expressive emotionally. Each composition has a distinct identity non-free jazz listeners can immediately grasp and describe. In fact, some of her compositions even incorporate classical/third stream forms. Anyone who digs late career Andrew Hill (like Dusk and Timelines) will be keenly intrigued by what they hear in Machina Faust.

You could say Kruusiauk leaves fans wanting more (music, at least). Still, this is an acutely personal film that gives viewers an unvarnished look into Faust’s psyche. You definitely understand where the emotion we hear in her music comes from. Highly recommended for fans of Faust and outside/inside jazz in general,
Machina Faust screens virtually at the New York Baltic Film Festival, through Sunday 11/19.