Thursday night, December 1st 2011 saw a tremendous start to this year’s Penang International Jazz Festival. In the most beautiful of settings at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Batu Ferrenghi, the Indie performance evening has set the bar high for all that follow.

Sundown @ The Tropical Spice Gardens Penang
Sundown @ The Tropical Spice Gardens Penang (image credit)

As a showcase for young Malaysian musical talent, the evening surpassed the highest of expectations. Even a true Penang tropical downpour of biblical proportions (I’m talking Noah, ark, animals two-by-two…) couldn’t dampen the enthusiastic crowd’s enjoyment of the 3 original talents on display.

Liyana Fizi, Bihzhu and Az Samad were a perfect combination of unique musical entertainment. Accomplished, confident and extremely good company for the evening!

Az Samad started the evening off in his own inimitable style. Surely there is no other known guitar player who appears to get such pleasure from using every aspect of his instrument. To listen to a full set of instrumentals both the playing and the composing needs to be varied and of the highest quality. Az never disappoints.

He efffortlessly took us on a journey that touched on classical guitar, Spanish Flamenco, foot-stomping Irish Gaelic jigs, raunchy progressive metal and lilting folksy melodies that stayed with you long after Az had packed away his guitars and was gone.

Az’s natural enthusiam for his music shines through and his is the kind of performance you find yourself enjoying with a permanent smile glued on your face. He extracts an amazing range of sounds from his acoustic guitar, slaps on the sound box and strings, coupled with nail scratches, taps and some exquisite string picking. It was no surprise when one of the strings gave up the ghost and necessitated a quick change of instrument. Az appeared to barely notice and took it all in his stride.

Highlight of his performance for me, although hard to pick only one from a selection of songs played at an amazingly high standard, was his ‘Letter from Tahoe’.

If you can find any of his work, buy it. If you ever get the chance to see him, do it. You won’t regret either.

A truly unique talent enclosed in such a nice guy!

You can download Az’s music here

Whats-On-Penang-SundownTSG-BihzhuAnd then we were allowed five minutes to catch our breath, recharge our glasses and get comfortable for the next young star, Bihzhu.

Formerly one-half of the popular pop-jazz band Rhapsody, Bihzhu (who used to go by the name of Nicole Foo) has set the stage alight with her sultry vocals. Reminiscent of Fairground Attraction’s Eddi Reader (for those of you old enough to remember that far back!), Bihzhu has a richness and controlled power that she combined with a pitch-perfect performance.

Another talented young Malaysian musician that also has a wicked sense of humour, she is so comfortable with her audience. Just as with Az before her, you find yourself lifted by her enthusiasm and beaming big smile.

Bihzhu’s vocals sweep you past the breeziness of folk and foot-tapping swing, touch on the rhythm of reggae, before showing her true inner soul and depth of feeling.

Playing to her strengths of simple, unaffected songwriting and purity of vocalizations, her appealing blend of pop, jazzy folk, and swing, feels so intimate because of its authenticity.

My favorite had to be her catchy ‘The Heart Way’. A cheerful tune of acceptance, that highlights Bihzhu’s fun approach to life. It was part of Julie Biscuits Share the Love campaign and has been featured on major radio stations, 988 FM, XFM and Hitz FM.

Close behind, and I do mean close behind, were ‘Palpitations’ and ‘Xiao Bai Chuan’. ‘Palpitations’ has a retro feel, bubbling with lush instrumention and playful scatting and is all about any Penangite’s favorite topic; food. And forbidden foods at that!

‘Xiao Bai Chuan’ was a lilting Mandarin nursery rhyme her mother used to sing her to sleep with, when she was little. Bihzhu sung it with a tenderness that plucked at the heart strings.

The Tropical Spice Garden was a great setting for her and she played the crowd superbly. What an enjoyable evening this was turning out to be!

Bihzhu’s current E.P. available for download here

Whats-On-Penang-SundownTSG-Liyana FiziAnother quick break and glass refill before our last performer of the evening entered the stage. Local indie sweetheart Liyana Fizi, still remains as down-to-earth and sweet as ever.

For a young performer with so much talent, she has a charming manner and wowed the audience despite the heavens opening with an almighty downpour.

Her beautiful voice, bestowing on us another faultless performance, was complimented perfectly by her string-picking guitar work.

Az stepping into to cover for her absent regular guitarist, added many deft touches to enhance the whole listening experience.

Playing many hits from her debut solo album ‘Between the Lines’, Liyana rounded off the perfect evening in perfect style.

My pick from her set; ‘Killing Me’, just about took the title from ‘Light Writing’. Haunting tunes, that sweet melodic voice, what a great combination!

Liyana’s album ‘Between the Lines’ available to buy here