A STRONG melody, a good lyric that tells the story and, more often than not, a touch of the blues -- those are the qualities vocalist Etta Jones and saxophonist Houston Person admire in a song. They have gathered a fine collection of those songs for their new albums.

Jones, whose latest release is called "Fine And Mellow," is one of the most underrated jazz vocalists around. Her voice is dark and soulful, her phrasing unfussy. Like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Esther Phillips, she sings from the heart, with a knowing, hard-won authority, so that when she throws herself into a song like "I Want A Little Boy" or grows lovesick (as in sick of love) on "Fine And Mellow," you're not inclined to call it an act. Every word rings true.

Person, who accompanies Jones on her album with a commiserating lyricism, can also be heard mining the blues on his new instrumental album "The Talk Of The Town." Like Jones, he favors an almost old fashioned approach to a melody, a concern for feeling rather than flash. Apart from an engaging samba written by trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, the album focuses on chestnuts like "Everything Happens To Me" and "Almost Like Being In Love." The arrangements are enlivened by Bridgewater's trumpet and the solid rhythm section, but it's generally Person's earthy tenor sax that's responsible for the emotional peaks. ETTA JONES AND HOUSTON PERSON --

Jones' "Fine And Mellow" (Muse MR 533) and Person's "The Talk Of The Town" (Muse MR 531). Both appearing at Cates through August 23.