One foot in the past, one foot in the future. That’s Alexis Cole’s motto.
The former Montreux Jazz Vocal Competition winner, one of the star performers at the 34th annual Sarasota Jazz Festival (Feb. 20 through March 1), has a vintage voice — think a little bit Sarah Vaughan, a little Peggy Lee. But she very much wants to be contemporary.
“I like to listen to it all,” says the New Yorker, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale. “I don’t aim for music that’s retro. I want to tell a story with a modern ear, with a sensibility of having studied jazz.
“Whenever I can add to my palate, if it suits the mood of the song, I’ll try it.”
She’ll get her chance when she takes the stage with pianist John DiMartino and saxophonist Eric Alexander on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Sarasota’s Players Theatre ($35 general admission; $30 Jazz Club of Sarasota members).
Cole began performing as a teenager at the Ritz Hotel in South Beach, then enrolled in the University of Miami’s Jazz Studies program, continued at William Paterson University in New Jersey and finished her graduate studies at Queens College in New York.
Her debut album, “Very Early,” came in 1999, recorded with pianist Harry Pickens. She has since cut several more albums, including her most recent, 2013’s “Close Your Eyes.”
She’s a world traveler, performing across Europe, Asia and South America and serving as a guest faculty member at the Berklee College of Music in Quito, Ecuador.
To top it off, she’s also the lead vocalist for the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights, the U.S. Military Academy’s big band.
“We play in and around New York and at some festivals,” Cole said. “It’s just a great experience, and you’re always surrounded by quality players.”
Cole cites Shirley Horne, Anita O’Day and Ella Fitzgerald as early influences, but as she’s gotten older, she has a greater affinity for Sarah Vaughan.
“She had such an open, womanly sound,” she said. “Ella always had a framework, she worked out her improvisation. Sarah was an amazing vocalist, completely original. She had a more broad, open voice. It’s had a great impact on me.”
Cole has more albums on the way. She finished one for Chesky Records that contains all public-domain songs, and she’s planning a self-produced album later this year, comprised of songs about hope. Some of the proceeds will benefit Outward Bound for Veterans, which offers wilderness courses to help returning service members re-adjust to life at home.