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World Probe of Hoffman’s death catches a Canadian 'musical visionary'

Phillip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this month of an apparent drug overdose.

KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS

He's called himself "a musical visionary," educated in the "school of hard knocks, the university of the street." A man, adept at "every kind of concept of music there is," who played saxophone on Davie Bowie's 1983 mega-hit Let's Dance, flute on Amy Winehouse's Frank recording, keyboards for the touring band of Fugees founder Wyclef Jean.

But today Robert Vineberg's main claim to fame is as the alleged Canadian connection in the death this past weekend of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Montreal-born Mr. Vineberg, 57, better known in music circles as Robert Aaron, was one of four people arrested Tuesday evening at apartments near New York's Chinatown and charged with drug possession and criminal use of drug paraphernalia.

Mr. Hoffman, 46, died of an apparent heroin overdose, although an autopsy report released Wednesday proved inconclusive in that regard. The arrest of Mr. Vineberg, who has no prior arrests or apparent criminal record, came after police traced what they believed to have been the source of the heroin suspected of killing Mr. Hoffman. A law enforcement official told The New York Times on Wednesday that more than 350 bags of heroin were found in the building, the majority of them in one of the two apartments Mr. Vineberg used, respectively, as a residence and studio.

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According to a biography on the website of the Paris-based Heavenly Sweetness label, for which Mr. Vineberg made a solo recording in 2010 called Trouble Man, Mr. Vineberg moved to New York in 1976 after being "forced to fend for himself [in Montreal] from the age of 14." Initially busking in Brooklyn, the bilingual Mr. Vineberg soon parlayed his talent on reeds, woodwinds, piano, bass and guitar into a career as a live musician and studio sideman supporting the likes of Blondie, Mick Jagger and Chic, among many others.

However, the gigs began to dry up recently, according to an unnamed woman, identified by the New York Daily News Wednesday as Mr. Vineberg's 33-year-old stepdaughter. "He got into this," the woman told the newspaper without specifying 'this,' "because right now he couldn't find any work – anything. This is the only thing he could think of. He couldn't even find work washing dishes, like he might have done as a young man."

The woman said Mr. Vineberg knew Mr. Hoffman, apparently having first met him at a TV studio, but claimed his last contact with the actor was in November, 2013. The woman told the Daily News that Mr. Hoffman's death made Mr. Vineberg "very upset. He said: 'I wish he would have called me because I could have made sure if he was going to do something, someone was going to be there and he was going to be OK.' "

Neighbours of Mr. Vineberg described him, variously, as "nice," "social," "gregarious," occasionally "spaced-out." One lauded his "amazing" musicianship but said she grew perturbed when he'd play My Funny Valentine at three in the morning. "[I'd] usually throw shoes at the wall [to get him to stop.]"

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