NEW YORK The words are intimate, but delivered in public. The music is sung close up, perhaps even whispered across cocktail tables.
Eyes glisten to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington. Throw in some new love-tinged tunes and a few foreign lyrics, and that's the scene at small venues across the country as a fresh batch of vocalists deliver timeless old songs.
From New York's Cafe Carlyle to the Cinegrill on Hollywood Boulevard, the big songs of the past are packing in audiences at tiny jazz clubs and cabaret rooms.
''I love singing to individuals turning to a person in the audience and seeing the expression on a face, the reaction to what I'm singing,'' says songstress Anna Bergman.
During a spunky rendition of Richard Rodgers' ''Gotta Get Back to New York'' at Danny's Skylight Room in Manhattan, Bergman glanced at one listener, then threw a knowing nod at another. The venue is reached by walking past tables of restaurant diners as if the music chamber were a secret for a chosen few.
Bergman's debut CD, ''Souv-enir,'' celebrates old-fashioned sentiment in music by Noel Coward, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Johann Strauss Jr., plus Viennese waltzes and opera arias she learned as the Paris-born daughter of an American diplomat.
Across West 46th Street from Danny's is Don't Tell Mama, where Loli Marquez-Sterling burned down the house in a show that tapped her heritage as a New Hampshire native of Cuban origin.
A ''multilingual entertainment Ferrari,'' in the words of critic Peter Leavy, Marquez-Sterling comes off both in-your-face and wounded with songs like ''Only in Miami'' (''I can hear the brokenhearted say-Only in Miami is Cuba so far away ...''), and oldies like ''Guantanamera.'' She was backed by band heard on her debut CD, ''Loli, But Not Alone.''
''I'm not on stage just singing songs,'' she says. ''I'm giving the message to the audience: You've also lived through this. And while I'm doing my schtick, they're there saying, 'I know, I know, I know what she means. Oh God, yes I know.'
''I don't have a problem with being intimate with people. I don't have a wall.''
A five-minute walk from Don't Tell Mama is the tradition-steeped Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel, where 19-year-old singer-pianist Peter Cincotti recently filled the room night after night, despite a $50 cover charge plus drinks. A Columbia University sophomore, he has fans both old and young, some of whom compare him to Harry Connick Jr.
Cincotti, Bergman and Marquez-Sterling at different stages of their careers, with different repertoires have debut CDs with one common factor: music that offers the intimate touch.
''These songs are timeless, and the lyrics are everlasting it's not about some craze at the moment that's going to die in the next year,'' says Cincotti. ''These songs should appeal to everyone.''
Cincotti's album is a melange of everything from the Blood, Sweat & Tears rock tune ''Spinning Wheel'' to Fats Waller's ''Ain't Misbehavin''' jazzed-up with Cincotti's Thelonious Monk-inspired improvisations.
''There's a new momentum in music, and it's not retro: People want to hear what's familiar, what's close to them. They're tired of a stressed-out, plastic world they want the real deal,'' says Glen Barros, head of California-based Concord Records, Cincotti's record label.
While the music industry is pushing big CD sales with appearances at megavenues and mass-market radio play, a jazz artist like Cincotti uses an alternative marketing style, Barros says.
His genre of music exists on a smaller scale. Cincotti's first CD has sold more than 54,000 copies since its release in March, a respectable number for Cincotti but a drop in the bucket for a pop star.
The current embrace of old styles comes in the wake of eight Grammys for the debut album of chanteuse-pianist Norah Jones.
''A few key new artists have broken down the barriers,'' says Barros.
The Westwood One Radio Network, based in Valencia, Calif., feeds ''adult standard'' songs to 240 commercial stations heard by 8 million listeners. ''We are bringing back the standard songs to a new audience,'' says program director Chick Watkins.
It all stems from classic tunes known as ''The Great American Songbook,'' the staple of greats like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
''I was born in 1936 and these songs were all around me as I was growing up and they've stood the test of time,'' says producer Tommy LaPuma, chairman of Verve Records, which once recorded the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn. Verve also recorded Diana Krall's new album, ''The Look of Love,'' which has sold 4 million copies worldwide.
''The lyrics of the great old songs are very smart, in the sense that they're general enough that most people can relate to them,'' said LaPuma. ''At the same time, the melodies are so strong, so sophisticated, that they touch the heart.''
Says Joel Dorn, a Grammy-winning producer whose artists have included Roberta Flack and Bette Midler: ''The repertoire once sung by Sinatra, Peggy Lee or Nat King Cole is being recycled by young artists who would otherwise be doing rock. That's a tribute to the power of this music. The game's the same, but there's new blood in it.''
Rod Stewart's latest album, ''The Great American Songbook,'' has sold more than a million copies, and longtime stars like Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow are singing to new audiences by putting their stamp on traditional songs.
''That's part of the appeal: To see a great artist in an intimate setting,'' says Barros.
The old songs also are riding on the enduring popularity of 70-something greats like Barbara Cook and Bobby Short, and middle-aged cabaret stars Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers and Sylvia McNair.
Cook ends her shows by singing without a microphone. Likewise, Bergman filled Danny's with her unmiked voice for a show that included ''Ice Cream,'' a song made famous by Cook in the 1963 Broadway show ''She Loves Me.''
On another recent day, Bergman was waiting on a Manhattan subway platform, vocalizing to herself. A stranger approached, Bergman recalls, asking, ''Do you ALWAYS sing?''
Indeed, she ''Can't Help Singing'' a Jerome Kern classic that Bergman has made her own.
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