The three singers sat in a circle harmonizing on “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” as though 35 years hadn’t passed.
As they sang, Tim Sparks played one wrong note on guitar, and after “Minnie” was done, fellow guitarist Tom Lieberman corrected him.
“It’s spooky how fast all that music comes back,” Sparks said.
“Ninety-five percent comes back,” Lieberman observed. “It’s the other 5 percent that makes it good.”
Rio Nido, the Twin Cities trio that made retro vocal jazz cool in the late 1970s and ’80s, is rehearsing for its first bona fide Twin Cities club gig in three decades, set for Friday at the Dakota in Minneapolis.
“This is a project from [our] youth — we want to see what everybody brings 30 years later,” said singer Prudence Johnson during a recent rehearsal in her Minneapolis living room.
The reunion came together because individuals in Rio Nido were asked to play a benefit for Friends of the Headwaters this past summer in Park Rapids, Minn., and they agreed to do it together — their first performance since a one-off a decade ago in St. Paul.
“It was a really great show,” Sparks said, “so we approached the Dakota.”
This is the original incarnation of Rio Nido that recorded “I Like to Riff” in 1978. The Dakota gig will be an unofficial CD release party because “Riff,” the group’s first of three albums, wasn’t available in the United States on CD until now.
In an era when the Twin Cities club scene was dominated by blues bands and emerging punk rockers, Rio Nido (the name comes from a historic resort near San Francisco) was part of a retro jazz scene along with the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra that turned young hipsters on to the music of their grandparents.
The music “reflected this counterculture that was really appealing,” Johnson said.
“We were a trio of misfit toys with different points of view,” said Lieberman, pointing out that the band had to be tight enough to afford to be loose for improvisation and comedy.
Their repertoire included arrangements of tunes made famous by the Boswell Sisters, Al Jolson, Nat King Cole and others. Rio Nido appeared regularly on radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and at the Holiday Inn and Hyatt hotels in downtown Minneapolis four to seven nights a week. Members of Tower of Power and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes sat in. When in Minneapolis, Johnny Mathis and Jerry Jeff Walker came to Rio Nido gigs.
Lieberman left in about 1980 because he had a family, and Rio Nido became a quartet (with drummer/singer Roger Hernandez and bassist Dave Maslow), disbanding in 1986.
The three original members have had fruitful and diverse careers.
Johnson has been a standout jazz chanteuse, recording several albums, including themed projects about George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Edna St. Vincent Millay. She has appeared in musicals about the Edmund Fitzgerald and Jacques Brel and acted in the movies “A Prairie Home Companion” and Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It.” She also took time out to earn a degree in international studies at Hamline University.
Sparks has become a globe-trotting world-music force, releasing seven recordings of adventurous guitar music, including a solo guitar adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” to reinterpretations of klezmer music. He has played a variety of ethnic music, including Balkan, Portuguese, French, Russian and Jewish.
Lieberman worked behind the scenes at “A Prairie Home Companion,” which led to a career as a writer, composer and producer for radio, TV, stage and screen. In 2004, he produced and composed the soundtrack for the award-winning Minnesota-made film “Sweet Land.” He wrote scripts and music for touring productions featuring Elmo, Winnie-the-Pooh and his own creation, Luke the Uke. He has collaborated with Delfeayo Marsalis on an animated TV program about jazz and released one solo album. (Hernandez, who replaced Lieberman, died in 2014.)
The three Rio Nido members have worked with each other throughout the years (“we’ve been circling each other,” Sparks noted) but never all three together.
What does each member bring to the trio?
“Prudence doesn’t just sing well, she conveys,” Lieberman said.
“She has a sense of righteous and ethics both in life and music,” Sparks said.
As for Sparks, he “brings this kind of intellect,” Lieberman pointed out. “He’s got this music that’s very broad and really rich.”
Lieberman’s asset is “a great sense of rhythm,” Johnson noted. “In this dynamic, Tom is the one insisting on perfection.”
“I’m the straight man,” Lieberman interjected, “and Tim and Prudence are the characters.”
Before rehearsals started six weeks ago, Johnson revisited the original recordings.
“I was kind of brash and sassy, and it doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore to sing that way,” she said candidly. “I think our [vocal] blend is nicer and sweeter.”
Said Lieberman: “We’re older, wiser and healthier.”
The Dakota shows will not only feature Rio Nido material — “they are very short songs,” Sparks remarked — but also solo efforts from each of the members.
Could this be the start of an ongoing reunion? “We’ll take it one step at a time,” Sparks said. “I think we’d like to do a future show and do some new repertoire.”