Chris "Big Dog" Davis in action. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Rudolph had made landfall at the Stetson Branch Library, and the audience was ready to dance in his arrival. Beneath musician Timmy Maia, a record scratched and spun, then a beat dropped. Rapper Mike G channeled the red-nosed hero, and sprang into the action. At the front of the group, students bobbed their heads in time with the music, and a dozen red and green soft antlers danced atop their heads.
The North Pole came to Stetson last Saturday afternoon, as Grammy-nominated pianist and producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis and fellow musicians rang in the Christmas spirit on Dixwell 197 Dixwell Ave. From the very first flurry of notes to a final, jazz-kissed take on “White Christmas,” the concert doubled as a triumphant celebration of life and of gathering in the coldest, darkest season of the year.
Musicians included Timmy Maia, Barbara Fowler, Kris Jensen, Joquan Kinsey, Mike G, and students from Waterbury’s 3D Music Academy, as well as drummer Isaac Monts and bass player Lawrence White. The event, a longtime Stetson Branch tradition that the pandemic put on hold, received support from the city’s Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism.
“I’ve played a lot of places, and the one that touches me the most is being inside like this,” Davis said as he took a seat at the keyboard, and looked at the dozens of New Haveners who had gathered around him. “As a music producer, I am drawn to these melodies. Christmas songs have some of the best melodies. And you don’t know this yet, but you’re going to sing today.”
With a small smile, he pressed down gently on the keys, as if to tell the instrument that he was home. Then he looked up at the audience, where listeners ranged from eight months to 98 years old. He tapped out the first few notes of “Deck The Halls,” and nodded as the audience tentatively joined in. A thin “Fa la la la la la la la la?” gathered steam, voices building steam as they swelled in the space. By the time he had gotten to “Jingle Bells,” the sound rose to the ceiling.
“All right, keep em’ comin, keep em’ comin,” he said. He turned a knob on his keyboard, and soaked the room in velvety synth that welcomed in a “Noel” that was familiar, and yet totally new. “This will be nice and beautiful.”
Timmy Maia with Chris "Big Dog" Davis, Lawrence White and Isaac Monts.
It opened the floor to an afternoon of music that filled the library with something entirely of Davis’ own making. From a “Noel” from the audience fit for Sunday services, Maia welcomed in a swinging cover of “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” cymbals tap-tapping in time beneath buttery vocals. As Maia improvised between verses, White came in with a thrumming, deep bass line that undulated all the way through the floor, in a gentle call-and-response with the keys.
“Chris ‘Big Dog’ Davis, y’all!” Maia said as Davis took the solo, keys dancing with the bass and drums. White kept it mellow, waiting for the right moment to bring in a whisper of cymbal and crisp downbeat. Bah dah da dop! Maia sang before beaming at the audience, and busting out a key change for the end of the song.
A cry of “Come on now!” came from somewhere in the center of the room.
The audience included music educators, pint-sized and grown arts enthusiasts, former and current Stetson Branch family and everyone in between. Pictured listening is Joncie Maybin.
Davis was just getting started. Locking eyes with Monts, he introduced his take on “Little Drummer Boy,” first recorded and released six years ago. After easing into the piece with a jammy, smooth jazz riff, he began a back-and-forth with the drums, letting Monts take it away as the audience caught on and clapped.
“Take it, Isaac!” he said. As keys retreated into the background, Monts hit a rhythm, leaning into the cymbals. Drums hammered through the floor, until listeners could feel it in their chests and shoulders. Monts burst into a smile, eyes never entirely leaving Davis.
“Yes! Nice” yelled Branch Manager Diane Brown from the front row, her arms glittering as her silver-sequined sweater bobbed up and down. “C’mon Isaac!” yelled someone from the back row, and Monts smiled.
Barbara Fowler gave the audience a slow, sizzling "Santa Baby" during the first half of the set. Lucy Gellman Photos.
That spirit flowed through a smoldering “Santa Baby” from Fowler, rousing round of “Jingle Bells” from Maia, and emceeing from DJ Al Taylor that sealed him on Santa’s nice list. Before a short intermission, Davis welcomed a performance of “Silent Night” from Kinsey that had many in the audience in tears.
After starting with the slow, quiet reverence that the song demands, Kinsey loosed a songbird from somewhere in his ribcage, wailing his way to the chorus. When he declared Oh Night! Divine!, Jensen’s sax wailing, it felt holy. Pulling away from the traditional verses entirely, he began to riff, and took the audience to church.
Earlier this year, Davis connected with the young musician after hearing him sing the National Anthem before the Connecticut Sun playoffs. “I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is just incredible,’” Davis recalled Saturday. And he was: Kinsey pulled out a range that could jump from quiet, intimate vocals to a rafter-raising one-man choir in seconds. When Kinsey returned for a jaw-dropping version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” during the second half of the show, the audience welcomed him back with cheers before he even began.
Nowhere, perhaps, was the sense of celebration clearer than Davis' hip-hip inspired take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a collaboration with Maia and Mike G that grew out of the old Stetson Branch Library across the street. When Davis first recorded the piece in 2017, it was with kids who had a second home at Stetson—some of whom are now in high school and college. He had wanted to write a song about bullying, and found in the song the right subject.
“Rudolph was bullied,” he said. “But what happened to Rudolph? He went down in history because of that bright red nose. So whatever you’re going through, believe in yourself.”
No sooner had he introduced the song than students streamed in through the back door, fabric antlers dancing atop their heads. Lining up, they introduced Rudolph as a historical hero, shouting out his name letter by letter. “L is for leader!” one small voice shouted. “P is for powerful!” added another.
Mike G with students from Waterbury's3D Academy, which Davis' brother runs.
As Maia crooned the first few bars of the classic carol, Mike G stood at the ready, the mic hovering for a moment in front of his mouth. On cue, he went airborne, bounding to the front of the group. Around him, students cheered Rudolph’s name. Dozens of audience members stood, clapping in time with the piece.
What I’m saying/I wish you could see from my eyes! Mike G rapped. I see potential! The devil really is a lie!
You gotta try, and give it everything you got! Tell ‘em “Haters, see ya later from the mountaintop!’”
Between songs, Davis also noted that he doesn’t take his time at Stetson for granted. In January 2020—just after a Christmas show at the old Stetson Library across Dixwell Avenue—the musician was diagnosed with metastatic lymphoma for the second time. When he went into the hospital, he didn’t know if he would see the outside world again. By the time he was discharged, Covid-19 had hit New Haven, closing businesses and halting live music in its tracks.
Chris Davis with Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown.
His brush with death—and the clarity that emerged from it—became the inspiration behind his 2020 album, Focus and huge-hearted 2020 single “Heal The World.” Saturday, he said he was thrilled to be back on the cusp of Christmas, celebrating with Stetson. The feeling was mutual; Branch Manager Diane Brown cried multiple times during the show.
“That’s my present I give to God,” he said of his craft. Before bringing on fellow musicians for a merry and bright finale, he thanked Brown, who has championed his work for years. “She don’t play,” he said.
Fittingly, Davis played out the concert in the most Big Dog of ways: by inviting back his musical family to jam with him. As fellow vocalists and musicians filled the makeshift stage, audience members stood to move to the music one last time. As they did, “White Christmas” got a groovy new spin that it didn’t know it needed. Somewhere beyond the veil, even Irving Berlin smiled.
When Davis ended the song, vocalists trading verses and swaying in place until the last notes, the room exploded in applause.