Album Review: Sax Kari and His Orchestra – Swinging the Blues

With the benefit of hindsight, the live and career of Chicago-born Sax Kari seems worthy of a biographical tome or perhaps even a film. A musician proficient on multiple instruments, Kari (born Isaac Toombs Jr.) was a busy and important figure in Black entertainment through most of the 20th century. A colorful character who word various in promotion, management, production, band leading and performance, Kari went by a number of pseudonyms including Ira Green, Texas Red and Candy Yams. A protégé of Fats Waller, Kari was a key figure ins developing the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” of live tours and venues featuring Black performers.

For all his importance, today there’s precious little audio documentation of his work. Save for rare 78 r.p.m. discs from the 1940s, Kari released only a handful of singles in the second half of the 20th century, but the only album of his performances released during his lifetime is the soundtrack to a 1978 blaxploitation film with an unprintable title. A 2002 compilation was released as Fumigate Funky Broadway: Rare And Unreissued Funk, Soul & Down Home Exotica. It featured a handful of sides credited to Kari plus an assortment of other recordings.

A new set collects 29 recordings by Kari, leading an assortment of aggregations; he seems to have been as fond of changing the name of his band as he did using clever stage names. On these tracks, Kari variously sings (or sing-speaks a la Cab Calloway), plays piano or guitar and/or leads the band. The orchestra swings hard and with gusto, blasting out a big, big sound. Even with the predictably dodgy fidelity of some of these sides (likely sourced from shellac discs), the spirit and excitement shines through.

The bluesy prototypical rock and roll of the saucy “Daughter (That’s Your Red Wagon)” from 1953 is a reminder that while a new musical era was about to dawn, it didn’t spring forth from nothing. Practitioners like Kari were helping bridge the gap from old to new. “Geneva and Johnny” is credited to Sax Kari and Ballin’ the Blues Band; with his give-and-take vocal duet with Gloria Irving, it showcases the playful nature that made contemporaries like Louis Jordan so successful.

Kari seemed comfortable in a wide variety of styles. With a subtle afro-cuban flavor, 1954’s “Red Hot Feeling” presages the exotica craze to come. He wasn’t beyond an occasional seasonal cash-in recording; witness “Christmas Letter” (from 1957) or a credible genre crossover like “Can Can Rock & Roll” from the same year (both tracks are credited to La Fets & Kitty with Sax Kari Band).

Kari’s prowess on electric guitar is showcased here and there on this collection; perhaps the best representative track is “Trying to Get You Off My Mind” from 1957. Kari engages in musical dialogue with vocalist Katie Watkins; note that his work is far more pleasing to the ear than is hers.

Taken as a whole, the 29 tracks on Swinging the Blues help fill in the historical gap between big band jazz-blues and rock and roll. The well-annotated collection is equal parts musical document and swingin’ good time.