Unlike most avant-garde jazz CDs, A Fine Balance does not contain any liner notes; therefore, those who acquire this 51-minute CD will find no written explanation of what that title means to acoustic bassist Michael Bates. But one who hears this 2004 recording can make an educated guess. A Fine Balance is an appropriate title because Bates and his colleagues successfully achieve some balances -- between improvisation and structure; individualism and team playing; abstraction and blues feeling; and inside and outside considerations. The team is a piano-less acoustic quartet billed as "Michael Bates Outside Sources"; Bates (double bass) is joined by Quinsin Nachoff on sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, and Mark Timmermans on drums -- and while the players have room to express themselves, they are also mindful of the need to work together as a cohesive unit. A Fine Balance is a musical democracy; one could say that it is very democratic, in fact, but it isn't anarchic. As improvisers, Nachoff, Turcotte, and Timmermans can, to a large degree, do their own thing. Their playing is quite free, but at the same time, they are aware of the needs of Bates' compositions. As a composer, Bates draws on influences ranging from Ornette Coleman to Dave Douglas, and his compositions, although certainly left of center, are also logical and coherent. They are compositions that call for an inside/outside environment, which Bates and his colleagues skillfully provide. A Fine Balance is not a five-star masterpiece, but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable demonstration of how well the inside and the outside can complement one another in avant-garde jazz.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson