“Big Dog” Brings It Home

Paul Bass Photo Chris “Big Dog” Davis, who as a kid learned some of his best licks in New Haven and Connecticut, is returning home with an early Christmas present.

Davis, a Grammy-nominated producer and international touring musician and arranger, is putting the finishing touches on a CD highlighting jazz, gospel, and hip-hop artists from the state. It’s called Christmas in Connecticut with Chris “Big Dog” Davis.

He plans to release it here in New Haven at a party at Dixwell’s Stetson Branch Library Dixwell on Thursday, Nov. 3 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Diane Brown, Stetson’s head librarian, said kids will get front-row seats at the event. She wants them to see Davis up close, to hear him play keyboards, and to hear him tell his remarkable story.

The story began in the 1960s, when at 4 years old he started playing keyboards in his parents’ Waterbury home. He instantly sounded good. His mother, the choir director at Refuge Church of Christ, started taking him to lessons. She also took him to church, where he played in the band seven days a week throughout his childhood.

Eventually those lessons took place at an after-school program at Yale, where Davis learned classical composition. He continued studying with a professor, auditing his Yale classes while still in high school. Then he studied jazz with the great Jackie McLean at Hartt School of Music. It was a time when gospel, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop were cross-fertilizing each other in venues from church sanctuaries to nightclubs to concert halls. Davis eventually traveled in all those circuits; his arpeggios came accented with back beats and flat sevenths.

After working as a Bank of America security guard while gigging, he got his big break in 1995 with Brian McKnight. He played on The Arsenio Hall Show, The Tonight Show, and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. He started touring and arranging music for a living. His dream was to become a producer: “The vision of hearing music and taking the artist to a place the artist wanted to be,” as he put it during a joint appearance with Brown on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.

He has gotten to do that for a long list of artists, including Najee, Phil Perry, Kim Burrell, and WIll Downing; his latest effort is jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright’s new album.

And, of course, Christmas in Connecticut, which will feature a variety of vocalists doing Davis-arranged Christmas standards in new ways. Davis called much of the music “hip-hopera,” a mix of his classical and hip-hop backgrounds. Dana Lauren performs a Sarah Vaughn-esque jazz version of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” Dawn Tallman does a gospelly “Silent Night” and a jazz-fusion “Drummer Boy.” It promises to be music you’ve heard over and over — and never before.

Click on the above sound file to hear the full interview with Chris “Big Dog” Davis and Diane Brown.

This episode of “Dateline New Haven” was made possible in part thanks to support from Yale-New Haven Hospital.

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