Last week, I popped in Eric Alexander's most recent CD, Summit Meeting, and my jaw dropped. What I heard could have been recorded 30, even 40 years ago. With a bit of digital audio trickery (like using software to simulate analog tape hiss), the album's producers could have passed off Alexander's CD as a decades-old lost gem.

Reminiscent of early-'60s John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, Alexander is a superb straight-ahead tenor saxophonist who made it out of Olympia, Washington, learned his craft in a Chicago organ combo, and found success in New York. His Quintet is stocked with fine players--most notably, veteran pianist Harold Mabern--and will probably deliver some stellar performances during its stint at Jazz Alley.

Alexander and his Quintet are not the only traditionally minded musicians around, but their finesse reminded me of a few jazz fundamentals: Not every artist blazes trails into the future. Indeed, we may be living in a refractory age where past spurts of artistic innovation slowly inseminate the arts, other artists, and the public. Also, demarcating jazz into eras after 1960 is futile. Concurrent conservatism seems to be the rule; today's practitioners of Dixieland, swing, bop, fusion, and free jazz don't disappear, but fall in and out of favor with big record companies, festival organizers, club owners, and music magazines. Finally, music writers notwithstanding, musicians have a right to play what they want. Tradition provides a handy road map and, in big cities, a better chance of leaving one's day job. Hard-charging innovators might garner some glamour and a place in the history books from riding the cutting edge, but more typical rewards include stale crumbs, creative Top Ramen recipes, and four bucks at the end of the night. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

The Eric Alexander Quintet performs Tues Aug 27 through Sun Sept 1 at Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave, 441-9729, $13.50/$19.50. Set times are 8 pm on Tues and Wed, 8 and 10 pm Thurs through Sat, and 6:30 and 8:30 pm Sun.