Here’s my five favourite jazz albums from 2012. Like the runners-up list in my previous post, they’re in alphabetical order. There’s too much variety in style to really say that one is better than the others: all of them have given me a lot of pleasure over repeated listents.

Billy Hart Quartet: All Our Reasons (ECM).
Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Ethan Iverson (piano), Ben Street (bass) and Billy Hart (drums).
An album which successfully blends several different approaches to contemporary jazz: New York post-bop, Lennie Tristano cool, European pastoralism and free playing are all part of the mix. None of the component parts are anything new, but the result is unlike anything any other band is doing. The group is also highly inventive in the way it makes use of different sub-groups from within the band: a considerable amount of the music is played by a single performer, duo or trio rather than the complete quartet. Not the most instantly accessible of records, but one which throws up new treasures every time I listen to it.

Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT).
Vijay Iyer (piano), Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums).
A piano trio exploring fresh ways of using dance rhythms. If I was more of a musician I might better be able to explain what’s going on, but on several of the tracks it sounds to me as if each musician is playing to a separate pulse, with these pulses fitting together to form a single overall groove. The material is a mixture of originals, pieces by jazz composers (Herbie Nichols, Henry Threadgill and Duke Ellington) and some recent pop pieces associated with Michael Jackson and Heatwave. Fascinatingly different from other contemporary jazz piano trios.

Branford Marsalis Quartet: Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis Music).
The MFs are Branford Marsalis (saxes), Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass) and the outstanding young drummer Justin Faulkner. The tunes are seven originals by members of the group, plus versions of “My Ideal” and Monk’s “Teo”. The playing is state of the art contemporary post-bop, with the band displaying the almost telepathic ability to react to and support each other’s ideas which only the best regular working outfits achieve.

Jeremy Pelt: Soul (High Note).
Jeremy Pelt (trumpet and flugelhorn), J D Allen (tenor), Danny Grissett (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums).
More benchmark post-bop from the States, but with a relaxed lyricism instead of the Marsalis outfit’s gallus swagger. The tunes are all slow-to-medium paced ballads and blues, but there’s enough variety in the arrangements to stop it ever becoming monotonous. Pelt is generous in not hogging the limelight: pianist Grissett probably gets more solo space than either of the horn players. It’s also an opportunity to hear Gerald Cleaver in a straightahead context – I’ve previously only come across him playing free-ish jazz in bands with William Parker. There’s nothing at all new going on here – the musical language would be totally familiar to the mid-sixties Miles Davis Quintet – but it’s done so well that that doesn’t matter.

Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson: New Focus (Whirlwind Recordings).
Konrad Wiszniewski (tenor and soprano saxes), Euan Stevenson (piano), Michael Janisch (bass), Alyn Cosker (drums), the Glasgow String Quartet, Alina Bzhezhinska (harp).
Romantic tuneful music which demonstrates that top-quality contemporary jazz isn’t automatically tuneless and difficult, and that being melodic and approachable doesn’t automatically mean bland and schmaltzy. Possibly the use of a quartet rather than a full string orchestra helps it avoided being too syrupy – right from the days of Haydn string quartets have always had a touch of astringency to them that larger string ensembles can lack. Fine tunes (half from Wiszniewski, half from Stevenson), fine arrangements (by Stevenson) and fine playing (from everyone). Jazz with strings has a chequered history but this album is a delight.

Some of these you’ll be able to track down in the shops, others you’ll probably have to buy online, either directly from the artist or label or from an online shop. If you do go by the internet route, it would be great if you refrained from using retailers who avoid paying their taxes in the UK.

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