L'Ensemble Rayé is a quirky and generally lighthearted band with roots in the European avant-prog scene of the '70s and '80s, which included such groups as Henry Cow, Samla Mammas Manna, and Picchio Dal Pozzo. Switzerland's principal contribution to this innovative scene was the band Débile 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, Débile Menthol mixed post-punk and new wave energy with Rock in Opposition elements to create adventurous and virtuosic music that was nevertheless much lighter in tone than such RIO mainstays as Univers Zero and Art Zoyd. Two important members of the band were Jean-Vincent Huguenin (aka Jean 20 Huguenin) and Cédric Vuille, who would continue a musical partnership long after Débile Menthol came to an end in 1985. The two musicians decided to form L'Ensemble Rayé in 1987, and the debut L'Ensemble Rayé disc, Même 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 "Même 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 Rayé 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 Rayé disc, 1993's Quelques Pièces Détachées, 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 Rayé 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 then 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 Débile 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 Hofmann had all contributed as guest musicians. The alternatingly sprightly and moody album of European folk-influenced avant-rock and jazz was perhaps L'Ensemble Rayé'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 Rayé (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 für Pu den Bären was the seventh disc in a series of Pooh recordings on the Kein & Aber label, and featured the five L'Ensemble Rayé members from En Frac! While the sound of Ein Fest für Pu den Bären 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 Rayé discs, with a considerable amount of overdubbing and many guest musicians supplementing the core group. In fact, Rossel and Hofmann would soon leave the band, to be replaced by two of the guests who appeared on Ein Fest für Pu den Bären, 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-à-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 Rayé discs, Vis-à-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 Rayé discs over the years, the partnership of Jean 20 Huguenin and Cédric 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 Débile Menthol, their long-term musical relationship seems all the more remarkable. ~ Dave Lynch