JAZZ VOCALIST Ronnie Wells and pianist Ron Elliston have been performing in Washington for nearly a decade, but unless you're an inveterate concertgoer or one of their students (they teach jazz courses at the University of Maryland), chances are you're unfamiliar with this empathic duo.

In a perfect world, their new album, "The Gift," would win them plenty of airplay and a slew of engagements. As things stand, however, Wells and Elliston may have to console themselves with glowing reviews like this one.

Recorded in concert a year ago, "The Gift" is a splendid, carefully considered collection of tender ballads and lightly swinging tunes. With a voice both warm and agile, Wells moves from the sublime to the meticulous on such ballads as "The Two Lonely People," "Autumn Nocturne" and "Tennessee Waltz," blending intimate moods with articulate storytelling.

Perhaps the most unlikely choice, "Tennessee Waltz," the country chestnut, has seldom if ever been given classier treatment, and guitarist Dave Mendenhall deserves much of the credit. But then Elliston's arrangements are uniformly tasteful and crisply executed by his quintet.

When the tempo quickens, Wells is apt to turn to her own material, such as "Blues Samba" (which is a lot more sunny than sad), or unearth a few gems like Jon Hendricks' amusing ode to gluttony called "Feed Me" or "Dig," Miles Davis' boppish reworking of "Sweet Georgia Brown." Wherever she turns, Elliston is right behind her, providing sensitive and attractive settings for each of Wells' artful performances. RONNIE WELLS -- "The Gift' (Jazz Karma Records 900); appearing Sundays in October at the One Step Down.