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Ralph Carney Dies at 61

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Acclaimed instrumentalist performed with everyone from Tom Waits to St. Vincent and the Black Keys.

Acclaimed saxophone player and veteran session musician Ralph Carney has died at age 61. The news was confirmed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- which reported that Carney died as a result of head injuries sustained after falling a flight of stairs  at his home in Portland, Oregon -- and confirmed by Carney's brother, James. The sad news was also reported by Carney's nephew, the Black Keys' drummer Patrick Carney, who posted a loving tribute to his late uncle on Sunday (Dec. 17).

"Today my uncle @ralph_carney passed away," he tweeted. "I hope everybody is lucky enough to have someone as special as Ralph in their lives at some point. He taught me so much... he sat me down at 15 and made me listen to the Shaggs. We all need an uncle like that."

Carney, a native of Akron, Ohio, was reportedly surrounded by friends and family at the time of his death at a Portland hospital on Saturday (Dec. 16). A collector of unusual instruments and virtuoso saxophone and clarinet player, Carney recorded a wide variety of solo and band projects over his 40+ year career, garnering acclaim for his work on more than half a dozen albums by Tom Waits (including such iconic recordings as Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years), as well as signature session work on albums by the B-52's, Galaxie 500, Hal Willner, Stan Ridgway, St. Vincent, film composing (Dead Man Walking, Night on Earth, Wild at Heart, The End of Violence) and, most recently, his title track to the Netflix animated show BoJack Horseman recorded with nephew Patrick.

With a restlessly creative sound and musical vision, Carney began his colorful career performing in the new wave band Tim Huey in the 1970s before forging what would become a decade-long relationship with the equally experimental Waits. In addition to his seven solo albums, Carney played on dozens of sessions, recording with Yo La Tengo, Oranj Symphonette, Jonathan Richman, They Might Be Giants, the Kronos Quartet and Elvis Costello, among others. A documentary about his career from filmmaker Laura Torell, This is! Ralph Carney, has been in the works for years.

"The music he made was incredible because it could be really bizarre and very deep and yet very fun," Patrick Carney told the Plain Dealer. "When I was 16, I visited him when he was living in San Francisco and he introduced to the weirdest kinds of music, the most esoteric. And then I would send him some things I would make that were really out there and he would write me these long letters and would be so encouraging... He taught me to love weird music."

In his official bio, Carney crystallized what made his spirit and sound so unique. "With one foot planted in the historical, and the other in the hysterical, Ralph Carney has spent the better part of his life plotting an utterly singular path through the musical landscape. From his earliest sonic forays at the dawn of what some might call new wave to his current perch atop the summit of what he has dubbed 'serious jass,' the Ohio-bred reedman has blown up storm after storm – leaving trails of pleasure, rather than destruction in his wake."

Check out some of Carney's work below and loving tributes from some of his peers and fans.

 A number of fans and fellow musicians have paid tribute to Carney on social media.

 

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