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Paula Cole hopes jazz ‘Ballads’ the perfect balm for the times

Paula Cole | Erica McDonald

Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole says she increasingly finds herself revisiting the past via memories that strike her heart with a vengeance — memories that ultimately ended up inspiring her to continue to make new music.

Many of those memories are of her father, Jim Cole.

“He would come home and play some Duke Ellington on the piano,” said Cole. “I fell in love with Miles Davis in high school. I would sit and teach myself some Ella Fitzgerald late into the night. My dad made money playing in a polka band, but it was the jazz that he loved that made an impression with me.”

PAULA COLE

When: 8 p.m. June 22

Where: City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago

Tickets: $35 – $45

Info: citywinery.com

It made such an impression that it not only inspired Cole to aspire to be a jazz singer during the early years of her career, but it most recently inspired her new album “Ballads,” a collection of 20 jazz covers from the 1930s to the 1960s.

“’Ballads’ is dedicated to my dad,” remarked Cole, who will play a number of selections from the new disc Friday at her City Winery concert. “Over the course of my career, the timing was never right to create this album, but it has always been something on my bucket list. It’s sort of a natural for me, too, because I have always crossed genres a little bit, and I’ve always had a quirky blend of influences and a whole bunch of vocal improv within my own catalog.”

But there is a bigger reason for this album.

“Most of all, I truly believe these are songs for all people,” said Cole, who has been outspoken about social injustice throughout her career. “’Ballads’ is a soothing album and a gentle album and an album that I sort of think people need right now.”

Paula Cole | Erica McDonald
Paula Cole | Erica McDonald

Cole has always had that way about her, a way of knowing how to sing the right song at the right time for fans craving the insight that has always lived within her lyrics. Past hits such as “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait” remain remarkably current.

“It’s been amazing to watch the life these songs have lived throughout the years,” says Cole, whose 1996 album “This Fire” was entirely self-produced by Cole, snagging her an album of the year Grammy nomination in 1998. “For example, with ‘Cowboys’ the question was so rhetorical in nature, but to this day, people continue to ask the same questions the song once asked. As much as people need music right now, they also need strong people to lead the way. Women are mad right now and they are going to ensure that there is change.”

In the case of “I Don’t Want to Wait,” a song made popular thanks to its inclusion in the TV series “Dawson’s Creek,” Cole still is awestruck by the impact that made in her career. “When my grandfather was leaving the planet and he wasn’t well, I realized that I wanted to live my short life as awake as possible,” she said.

It’s a philosophy she follows to this day.

“I do yoga and I tend to my gardens and I try to take care of the planet as much as possible,” she said. “At 50, I think I’m better now than ever before.”

And, Cole says, it’s more important than ever for her to speak her truth. “I truly believe that a heathy society is a mixed society. My daughter is biracial, so [I see the world] through her.”

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.