Where jazz meets fitness: Melbourne City Baths to get a little bit saxy

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The first time I saw Shannon Barnett perform, she was playing the trombone while hanging upside down, suspended in the air by one foot.

Shannon Barnett’s Dead Weight will feature musicians performing at the Melbourne City Baths.Credit: Lena Ganssmann

“Yeah, that was crazy!” laughs Barnett, speaking on Zoom from her current home in Cologne, Germany. The Australian jazz trombonist is recalling her time as a member of Circus Oz’s highly interactive band in 2009-10, and says it was her work with the circus that first piqued her interest in combining music with physical movement. That seed took hold in her mind, eventually growing into a unique cross-disciplinary project that she presented in Germany in 2018.

Called Dead Weight, the concert installation premiered in a fitness studio in Cologne, and will be presented on a larger scale as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in October.

Seventeen (mostly local) jazz artists will take over the Melbourne City Baths for one night, appearing in different locations and incorporating gym equipment into their performance. Fahrrad Frei is a work for five saxophonists riding exercise bikes; Skin Deep features a cappella singers in a locker room; and End of the Bargain is a composition for string players, a percussionist and a rowing machine.

The project sounds as comical as it is inventive, and Barnett is OK with that – even though each piece is inspired by serious concepts. “Humour is an important part of my work,” she affirms. “I totally get that it’s funny to perform live music in a gym – and I’m happy about that because there should be a lightness to it. I hope it’s a space where people feel welcome to come and listen to music, and perhaps be confronted with some other topics as well.”

Those topics include the sometimes hostile relationship between cyclists and car users, and lingering derogatory attitudes towards female jazz artists.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival artistic director Michael Tortoni (right) and jazz musician Cheryl Durongpisitkul.Credit: Jason South

Audiences will move through the rooms to witness each performance, culminating in a final piece – Deep Work – for musicians and a fitness instructor. The musicians will improvise according to the movements of the instructor, who will lead an aerobics class with no participants. “Hopefully, people will be confused … but also enjoy it,” Barnett says with a smile.

Although she devised and composed the music for each piece, Barnett won’t be performing on the night – not even as the aerobics teacher, despite having become a qualified fitness instructor as her “pandemic project”. “I’d rather be involved behind the scenes,” she says. “This [curatorial work] is something I’d like to do more of, and I don’t necessarily have to be on stage.”

She will be on stage, though, with her superb German quartet in a separate MIJF gig. The quartet has been together since 2015, one year after Barnett moved to Cologne to take up a position with the WDR Big Band. And while she has since left the big band, her quartet is still going strong. Asked about her approach as bandleader, Barnett explains that she used to write compositions with detailed instructions for her quartet colleagues. These days, the process is much more intuitive. “We trust one another completely, and we know what the possibilities are within the music – and because of that, we can push the boundaries a bit.”

The Shannon Barnett Quartet will perform as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.Credit: Kilian Amrehn

Listening to Barnett talk, her voice fizzing with energy and enthusiasm, it’s clear she is also trying to push boundaries in a wider sense. Many of the projects she’s involved with – as leader, section player or composer – address societal issues related to gender and power imbalances. She points out that she is one of very few female instrumentalist professors in music universities in Germany, and describes the jazz course at the university where she works as “still very much a boys’ club”.

“It’s a huge topic, but it’s something I’m very passionate about,” she says. “And we – the other female and non-binary teachers in Germany and I – are starting to band together, to try to get some change happening.”

Now firmly established as a musician with an international profile, Barnett is still working on what she wants to say as an artist. “Music is really important to me,” she muses, “but the context is also becoming important. What can I do with this music? What can I change? That’s something I’m thinking about more and more.”

Melbourne International Jazz Festival presents Dead Weight at the Melbourne City Baths on October 24, and the Shannon Barnett Quartet at Jazzlab on October 26.

The festival runs from October 20-29. All tickets will be on sale from 8am on Tuesday at melbournejazz.com.

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