After a two-year sabbatical, guitarist Larry Carlton is back with a new album and a new sound. "Alone/But Never Alone" is the California native's first acoustic venture in what has heretofore been a decidedly electric career.

"It's just a matter of timing," explains Carlton, who performs Thursday through Sunday at Blues Alley. "There's now an audience that enjoys hearing good, sensitive instrumental music. That didn't exist in the late '70s," he says. "They just wanted you to burn."

A former member of the Crusaders, Carlton is legendary in the music industry for playing in more than 3,000 recording sessions, including those of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Steely Dan. He says he's never had to compromise his style because "they call me to play like Larry Carlton."

"Alone/But Never Alone" is the most successful of his seven solo albums (now No. 2 on Billboard's jazz chart), and he has just signed a contract with MCA that calls for five acoustic albums and six electric albums over the next six years. Says Carlton of his recent diversification, "It's really an artist's dream." -- Mike McIntyre SELF-STARTER COLLINS

When pianist Joyce Collins' Laurel Canyon house burned down in the late 1950s she determined to use part of the insurance money to fulfil a long-held desire. She hired a top bassist and drummer, taped a studio session, signed the cover letter "J. Collins" and mailed the packet to a prominent jazz record label.

Word got back to Collins that the label's management, impressed with her whipped-up be-bop lines and down-home blues, had assumed that the artist was a black man whose playing history reached back several or more decades. To their surprise a blond in her late twenties turned up several days later and introduced herself with, "Hi, I'm J. Collins." (She was signed for an album.)

A few years later -- after jobs with her trio had taken the Battle Mountain, Nev., native from Los Angeles to London and Paris -- Collins added vocals to her performances. She opens with both piano and voice Tuesday for three weeks at Cates. Steve Novosel will be on bass. -- W. Royal Stokes BACK TO BASSIST

"The technical facility of bass players has grown with leaps and bounds," says Fred Hopkins, whose own contributions since the early 1970s have been considerable. "I wasn't really conscious of being different," adds Hopkins. "All I was trying to do was play the music that was presented to me." Modesty prevents the 38-year-old bassist from clarifying that the music in question was from the pen of Muhal Richard Abrams and other composers of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), a training ground from the 1960s for many of the major artists of today's jazz avant-garde.

District Curators' Spring Jazz Series concludes Saturday with a performance at d.c. space by Hopkins, multiwoodwind player Henry Threadgill and drummer Andrew Cyrille. The program will include compositions by all three musicians with an emphasis on the writings of Threadgill. -- W. Royal Stokes A SHOW-OFF SEND-OFF

Before she moves to Vermont, Helen Schneyer will be given a special concert by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington -- at which she'll be the sole performer. "I'm very much amused," Schneyer said. "I think the Folklore Society thought it was easier than getting me a gift. And it's another chance for me to show off, which I like."

Schneyer, along with a half-dozen or so others, founded the Folklore Society 21 years ago to make sure that interest in traditional music wouldn't fade after the folk music boom did. The society, she said, still maintains that goal, but its activities and membership have greatly expanded. "We are fulfilling the promise on a much larger scale," said Schneyer.

The 65-year-old singer and psychotherapist said she now performs, on average, once a month, usually outside Washington. She traveled with avant-garde composer John Cage around the United States and to West Germany when he was performing a Bicentennial piece. "He needed someone who could sing hymns from the Revolutionary days, and someone gave him my name," she said. "So the rest of the orchestra was doing God knows what."

Her final performance as a Washington resident will take place Saturday night at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. Schneyer said she will sing gospel music, ballads, mining songs and "hideobilia," her term for overly sentimental music and "things that are so ugly that they're actually attractive." -- Lisa Serene Gelb