Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld
Temple de Cully; Cully, Switzerland

On the evening before they entered a small Protestant church in the lakeside village of Cully, Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld played at The Twisted Pepper, a “tiny, rowdy, drunk box in Dublin” (Neufeld). On paper, these two venues couldn’t be more different, yet it’s a testament to the depth of the pair’s music that it was equally at home with the sacred and profane. As soloists and now in collaboration with each other for their Never Were the Way She Was album, their music conflates the primal and transcendental into a single movement, and it was this paradoxical dichotomy that took center stage for much of their performance on the fourth night of the Cully Jazz festival in Switzerland.

Especially in the case of Stetson, the primordial half of this improbable dyad flows from the raw physicality of his music, from its copious exploitation of circular breathing, contact mics, and reed vocalizations. These techniques and strategies combine to transform his horns into invisible extensions and amplifiers of his own straining body, which reveals itself in a new, elevated light at the very moment when it plunges deepest into its own wildness. It therefore only intensified the contradictory experience of his art to simultaneously witness him perform in the flesh and within the holy walls of le Temple de Cully, where he and Arcade Fire/Bell Orchestre bandmate Neufeld spent an hour previewing their album as well as playing a couple of solo numbers for a very diverse audience. While their performance didn’t mark radical stylistic departure on either side of the equation, they proved that the best collaborations magnify and catalyze the qualities that make the work of each individual collaborator so absorbing and enthralling.

Neufeld’s sustained rapidity in particular seemed to be goading Stetson into reaching higher plateaus of feverishness. During “In the Vespers” her violin’s quickened rallying drew his tenor sax out of its hermetic coils and into several overpowering shrieks, howls that wanted to discharge previously unknown energies and emotions into the staleness of the mundane world. It was exactly this kind of preternatural climaxing that imbued their duets with its tinge of the supernatural and spiritual, even if such abnormal peaks were massaged out of what, technically and melodically speaking, are very primitive repetitions, phrases, and loops. Compositions like “The Rest of Us,” “Never Were the Way She Was,” and Stetson’s “Judges” were fascinating in how they merged the brutish and exalted into a unified expression of what it means to be human, and even more so because they seemed to imply that it’s precisely the brutish elements of ourselves that are the most exalted.

Of course, this impression may have been a product of the hallowed venue, wherein roughly 300 parishioners sat on pews in awe at the rapture unfolding before them. Nonetheless, when the set began with “The Sun Roars into View” and closed out with “Never Were the Way She Was,” there was the same feeling of exposure to something that’s not heard everyday, and as prosaic as that may sound, it was enough to inspire the suspicion that Neufeld and Stetson were coaxing each other into some whole other place.

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