It's obvious that music comes naturally to Jeff Buckley. Strolling around McCabe's gui tar shop in Santa Monica before a recent performance there, he plucked, strummed or struck with a loving touch virtually every instrument he passed.
Not surprisingly, the young singer-songwriter credits genetics for these talents. With his stunningly accomplished debut album, "Grace," Buckley, 27, shows the same kind of experimental jazz-pop edge and poetic touch associated with his father, the late cult hero Tim Buckley, who died of a drug overdose in 1975 at age 28.
But it is a surprise that it's not his father whom he cites.
"My mother's side of the family has always been musical, the Guibert family," he said a little later at a Mexican restaurant. "My mother sang to me and my grandmother taught me songs in Spanish."
And his father?
Buckley's gentle eyes turned steely and he tersely said, "Next question."
Asked about the common quests and textures his music shares with that of his dad, who separated from his mother when Jeff was an infant, he said only, "I met him once."
Buckley spent his youth shuttling around Southern California with his mother, who, he said, "would fall into good luck and bad luck and have to move a lot."
That roaming life, with a soundtrack ranging from Led Zeppelin to John Cage, translates into the serpentine, Zen-like quality of Buckley's own music.
"Music was the only thing that really understood me," he said of his youth. "Human music is just an expression of the heartbeat and blood beating in your ears."
After playing in various teen garage bands, he left home at 17 and settled in Hollywood, where he dabbled in everything from rock to reggae to jazz. In 1990, he moved to New York and gradually started performing on the coffeehouse circuit. He signed with Columbia Records in October, 1992, but wanted to hone his musical vision before making an album.
He feels that "Grace" fulfills his search for a musical language suiting his ambitions. But he also says it's just a first step in tapping into the full spectrum of music he carries with him.
"I have things ready for gestation," he said. "Now I have a way of getting my material ready so it grows up right."