After 20 years of belting out high-octane blues, searing soul and soaring gospel, Sista Monica Parker is ready to turn down the volume.
Marking two decades of a remarkable late-blooming career, the award-winning vocalist is introducing a new project that recalibrates the larger-than-life sound she designed for festival throngs. With her new unplugged band Acoustic Honey, Sista Monica is looking to reach listeners through pillowy insinuation rather than clarion vocal prowess.
"I usually come out as a rockin', high volume, high-powered Chicago blues singer," says Sista Monica from her home near Tracy, where she settled after many years in Santa Cruz. "But a few months ago, I was at home singing some songs to
She's not reinventing herself so much as revealing the roiling emotional currents that run through so much of her music. Interpreting standards, jazz tunes, blues and her original songs in an acoustic context, Sista Monica is stripping away the protective distance afforded by large venues while she dials down the decibels.
It's the latest stop on a journey of discovery that started about a decade ago with a diagnosis of synovial sarcoma, a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Now officially in remission, she put music and prayer at the center of her recovery
With Acoustic Honey, she's bringing the kind of face-to-face communication that takes place in church into nightclubs, breaking through her reticence.
"I've never wanted to be that close and intimate with people, but over the 10 past years since my cancer battle, I see a lot of value being that close and up front and personal," she says.
"My intention is to be with people like I'm in my living room. They can see how your eyes adjust and your lips move to shape a note and emote."
Her first step in putting together Acoustic Honey was to secure the services of Ruth Davies, the great blues bassist known for her extensive work with masters such as Charles Brown, John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop and Maria Muldaur. While Sista Monica has featured Davies on almost half of her 11 albums, "we haven't done much (live) work together," she says. "Ruth's been doing a lot of touring with Elvin Bishop, so I scheduled these dates when she was available."
The rest of the Acoustic Honey quartet features her regulars: pianist and music director Danny "B" Beconcini, tenor saxophonist Danny Sandoval and veteran jazz drummer Leon Joyce Jr., who moved to the Monterey area after a decade on the road with Ramsey Lewis. It's the distilled version of the band featured on her last album, 2011's "Living in the Danger Zone" (Mo Muscle Records).
On the lookout for a new drummer in the fall of 2010, Sista Monica asked Joyce to come by for an audition. They clicked musically and personally, bonding as veterans who spent years in the Marine Corps. Boasting a resume thick with storied vocalists, including stints with Nancy Wilson, Patti LaBelle, Ann Hampton Calloway, Barbara Morrison and Mary Wilson, he can spot a great musical communicator within a few notes.
"She is a very powerful singer, and a very emotional vocalist," Joyce says. "Everything that comes from her mouth comes directly from her heart. She can sing a ballad and just bring tears to your eyes."
Since breaking into the music business in the early 1990s, Sista Monica has seized a series of breaks worthy of an old Broadway narrative. She first gained national attention by stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Etta James and winning over a restive crowd at a San Jose America Festival, a feat picked up by the Associated Press wire service. A few years later she pulled off a similar feat covering for an indisposed Koko Taylor at Milwaukee's Summerfest.
She's earned numerous honors since then and is nominated in the soul blues female artist category at the 34th Blues Music Awards, which are to be presented in Memphis on May 9.
"I thought this would be a little side project 20 years ago," she says. "Now it's taken on a life of its own, with 11 albums and performances all over the world.
"It's been a really good journey, and I'm still having a good time with it."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Piedmont Piano, 1728 San Pablo St., Oakland
Tickets: $20, 510-547-8188
Also: 7 and 9 p.m. Feb. 9, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, $20-$23, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.com