Styles: Avant-Prog, Folk-Jazz, Neo-Classical, Modern Composition, Avant-Garde
L'Ensemble Raye is a quirky and generally lighthearted band with roots in the European avant-prog scene of the 1970s and 1980s, which included such groups as Henry Cow, Zamla Mammaz Manna, and Picchio Dal Pozzo. Switzerland's principal contribution to this adventurous and innovative scene was the band Debile Menthol, formed in 1979 and varying in size from seven to nine members. Featuring a wide array of instrumentation, including violin, reeds, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums, Debile Menthol mixed the post-punk and new wave energy of Talking Heads with the darker Rock in Opposition stylings of Univers Zero and Art Zoyd. Two mainstays of the band were Jean-Vincent Huguenin (aka Jean-20 Huguenin) and Cedric Vuille, who would continue a musical partnership long after Debile Menthol came to an end in 1985. The two musicians decided to form L'Ensemble Raye in 1987, and the debut L'Ensemble Raye disc, Meme en Hiver/Comme un Pinson Dans L'Eau, was first released on vinyl in 1990, with each side of the disc devoted to compositions and arrangements by one of the pair (the "Meme en Hiver" side featured Vuille and the "Comme un Pinson Dans L'Eau" side featured Huguenin). The album provided the two musicians the opportunity to display their skills on a wide array of instruments, with Huguenin revealing particular talents on guitar and Vuille on both guitar and clarinet; multi-tracking and a host of guest musicians gave L'Ensemble Raye the sound of a full band on most of the tracks. The debut CD's style and approach were continued on the second L'Ensemble Raye disc, 1993's Quelques Pieces Detachees, with Huguenin and Vuille again composing most of the concise, RIO-flavored avant-rock and European folk-jazz tunes, and a diverse cast of musical supporting characters assisting on bass, drums, hurdy-gurdy, keyboards, saxophones, and more. Saxophonist/clarinetist Pierre Kaufmann made some particularly strong contributions to the album and henceforth would be considered a permanent member of the band.
The next L'Ensemble Raye CD, En Frac!, was released in 1996 and marked a departure from the previous albums: It is truly a "band" recording - made live in the studio by a quintet version of the group. The band now consisted of Huguenin, Vuille, Kaufmann, and two new permanent members, Canadian Shirley Anne Hofmann mainly on an array of instruments from the brass family (including euphonium, trombone, and tuba) and fellow Swiss Momo Rossel, like Huguenin and Vuille a former member of Debile Menthol. Rossel, a bassist, guitarist, and accordionist, had formerly led the avant-prog band Nimal, of which Huguenin had been a member and to which Vuille, Kaufmann, and Hoffmann had all contributed as guest musicians. The alternatingly sprightly and moody album of European folk-influenced avant-rock and jazz was perhaps L'Ensemble Raye's strongest display of composing, arranging, and instrumental virtuosity yet, proving that multi-tracking and other studio techniques were not necessary for the group to produce phenomenal music.
There has often been a charming, whimsical, and innocent quality to the primarily drummer-less sound of L'Ensemble Raye (a light approach that is relatively unique among bands with an avant-garde sensibility and invites comparison to groups like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Phillip Johnston's Transparent Quartet), so it wasn't entirely surprising that the next CD was a child-friendly endeavor with a Winnie the Pooh theme. Ein Fest fur Pu den Baren was the seventh disc in a series of Pooh recordings on the Kein & Aber label, and featured the five L'Ensemble Raye members from En Frac! While the sound of Ein Fest fur Pu den Baren is similar in many respects to En Frac! - and of broad appeal to both adults and children - the CD actually heralds a return to the approach of the first two L'Ensemble Raye discs, with a considerable amount of overdubbing and many guest musicians supplementing the core group. In fact, Rossel and Hoffmann would soon leave the band, to be replaced by two of the guests who appeared on Ein Fest fur Pu den Baren, Yann Altermath and Julien Baillod. With Huguenin, Vuille, and Kaufmann joined by Altermath (on alto saxophone, alto horn, and percussion) and Baillod (on guitar and bass), the band returned to a quintet format for its fifth album, 2001's Vis-a-Vis Movers, which consisted of music commissioned by the MOVERS dance company and premiered at a live dance performance in Zurich during March 2001. Maintaining the high-quality musicianship of the preceding four L'Ensemble Raye discs, Vis-a-Vis Movers also saw the band branching out into new stylistic areas, even a flirtation with spacy, rhythmic electronica. While a truckload of musicians have contributed to L'Ensemble Raye discs over the years, the partnership of Jean 20 Huguenin and Cedric Vuille has remained important to the group's sound on all of its recordings to date. When one considers that these two artists began collaborating before the end of the '70s in Debile Menthol, their long-term musical relationship seems all the more remarkable.
-Dave Lynch (All Music Guide)