Exotic sounds in the tropical air

It's 7am, and I'm sitting in a gazebo strung with fairy lights and surrounded by lush foliage. A young Malaysian girl with a guitar and a sweet, clear voice performs for an attentive audience sitting on woven mats on the gazebo floor. As we listen, sipping tea with the sky gradually growing light around us, it's hard to imagine a lovelier way to start the day.

The setting is the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang's Batu Ferringhi; the young singer is Amrita Soon; and the occasion is the 10th Penang Island Jazz Festival. The sunrise concert is a first for the festival, and director Paul Augustin looks relieved as he surveys the scene. ''It's so early in the morning - I was worried no one would come!''

Augustin is used to taking risks. The Penang-born former musician and long-time event manager started the festival in 2004 (along with his business partner, Chin Choo Yuen) as a self-funded enterprise, presenting a small program of mainly Malaysian jazz acts. ''We lost so much money,'' he says ruefully, ''and we nearly closed the company down.'' But Choo Yuen persuaded Augustin to persevere, convinced that the festival could succeed in the long-term. On their side, they had the allure of Penang's island setting; the support of a major hotel - the Bayview Beach Resort - as the festival's primary venue; a loyal team of volunteers; and Augustin's canny programming strategy of presenting mainstream jazz alongside much bolder, more adventurous fare.

Nine years later, it's clear that the pair's persistence has paid off. The Penang Island Jazz Festival is now lauded as a marquee event on Malaysia's arts calendar, attracting visitors from across south-east Asia and beyond. Augustin estimates that roughly a third of patrons are from Penang, a third from other parts of Malaysia and a third from overseas. The festival has grown into a four-day event combining concerts by acts from around the world with creative forums, workshops, exhibitions and a fringe program featuring emerging Malaysian artists.

This 10th edition opened with a concert by US singer and multi-instrumentalist Casey Abrams. Knowing that 22-year-old Abrams came to prominence as a finalist on American Idol, I was expecting a somewhat plastic performance from a sleekly clad crooner. Instead, Abrams ambled onto the stage - with shaggy hair, thick beard and rumpled clothes - singing a scat solo in an airy falsetto, before sitting at the piano to segue into one of his infectious original songs.

There were more surprises in store as the festival unfolded on the main outdoor stage, set in the hotel's gardens with the beach beckoning just a palm's frond away. Here we heard Norway's Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, whose trio looked like a band you'd find at an upmarket corporate function, but sounded like an ear-shredding fusion of Hendrix and Black Sabbath. Then there was Korea's Yoon-Jeong Heo, who could make her geomungo (zither) tremble, sigh or pulsate wildly as her Black String bandmates conjured up haunting soundscapes and thrusting, rock-infused gallops. And German duo Michael Schiefel (vocals) and Carsten Daerr (piano) offered a thrilling set that saw the pair twist art songs and Bach preludes into startlingly creative shapes.

Not everything was designed to challenge ears and minds. Alison Burns (in duo mode with Martin Taylor) and 82-year-old Freddy Cole performed sets that were swinging and soothing by turns, while British soul singer ESKA mesmerised the crowd with her huskily expressive delivery.

Beyond the concerts, one of the most intriguing elements of the festival was a small exhibition dedicated to Penang's popular music of the 1940s-60s. The exhibition was compiled by Augustin and British expat James Lochhead, and was made all the more fascinating by a brief visit to George Town, Penang's capital, the day before the festival opened.

While Batu Ferringhi consists mainly of seaside hotels and tourist-oriented services, George Town provides a vivid window into Penang's rich history. Established by the British as a trading centre in the late 1700s, it is now a World Heritage site, and its streets reveal a colourful collision of colonial, Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. In less than two hours, I walked past mosques and Taoist temples, crumbling colonial villas, tiny wooden shopfronts, open-air cafes, museums and street art stencilled on painted brick walls. Here was the old and the new, the familiar and the exotic, the past and the future, all jumbled together in an utterly beguiling fashion - not unlike the Penang Island Jazz Festival, as it turns out.

Jessica Nicholas was a guest of the Penang Island Jazz Festival and Malaysia Major Events.