Chris “Big Dog” Davis looked over the crowd of children in Santa hats in front of him, the adults sitting behind them, and led them through a sweet, traditional rendering of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In that minute, it sounded like maybe Davis had put together a pretty standard set of Christmas favorites in his new album, Christmas in Connecticut.
Then MC Mike G picked up the mike, drummer Trevor Somerville dropped a beat, Davis switched his style from pop to funk, and “Rudolph” became anything but traditional.
Davis and his crew came to the Stetson branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Dixwell Avenue on Thursday evening to celebrate the release of Christmas in Connecticut — Davis’s first album under his own name after decades as a musician and producer, with two Grammy nominations and 10 #1 hits on Billboard’s smooth jazz charts under his belt.
His latest victory as producer, Gerald Albright’s “Taking Control,” was sitting on the charts at #1 for the past two weeks. So he could have thrown his release party anywhere. Usually, Davis told the Independent just before the show, such parties were held with “corporate people, all the bigwigs.”
This time, Davis’s son, Tyrell Zimmerman, suggested something different. He thought Davis should call Diane Brown, the Stetson branch manager, and do shows for the community instead. Families. Kids.
“I ran for that,” Davis said, and set up shows in both New Haven and Waterbury, where he’s from.
Or as Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison put it as she introduced Davis, “You came home. And we appreciate you.”
“It’s a blast to perform in front of the kids,” Davis had said earlier. “Kids do something to you.”
Davis and company connected with their multigenerational audience fast. After a hard-hitting rendition of “Rudolph” and a deeply funky version of “Little Drummer Boy” that showcased Somerville and bassist Ace Livingston, Davis invited jazz singer Dana Lauren to the stage. Earlier Davis had compared her style to that of Sarah Vaughn. He was right, as Lauren kept the tune moving crisply, riffing on the melody to give it a bluesy swing and giving Davis plenty of ideas when it came time for him to take a solo.
The concert reached an emotional peak when Davis invited Kevin Monroe and Devotion to the stage. Earlier Davis had said that he loved all the cuts on his new album, “though ‘Deck the Halls’ is pretty heavy.” It was indeed, as Mike G called out and the gospel singers of Devotion responded, bringing everyone in the audience to their feet by the end.
Having brought everyone up, the set then turned deep. Somerville stepped away from the drum kit and took the microphone to sing a stunning rendition of “Give Love on Christmas Day.” “Sing it, Trevor!” someone yelled from the audience. Toward the end of the song, Somerville’s upward swoop into falsetto drew spontaneous applause. Davis had said that his take on “Silent Night” “gets very spiritual.” He wasn’t wrong about that. Gospel singer Dawn Tallman used that song to turn the library around her into a church.
In the middle of all of it was Davis at the keyboards, smiling, nodding, wiping his brow, giving his band the cues they needed to move things along. Earlier he had told the Independent that he wanted to impart a specific message to the parents who came to the show: that “when a kid looks at you, look at the future in their eye. The success is there — whatever they want to be.”
He told the audience at the library the same thing, adding that his mother had done that for him, encouraging and supporting his love of music from his childhood all the way through school. It was a good message, and hit home. But in another sense, it was in the music already, inspiring everyone there to snap their fingers, clap their hands, dance in their chairs, and get up and sing.