Interview with saxophone legend Candy Dulfer

Born and raised in Holland, Candy recorded her first million selling album “Saxuality” at just 19 years old for which she won a Grammy nomination.

That was back in 1989 and since then she has toured and recorded with Prince, Van Morrison, Sheila E and just about everyone else you can think of, as well as released a slew of brilliant albums in her own funky style. She has even been a judge on Holland’s X Factor!

I caught up with Candy to chat about her career.

NM: I remember first hearing you back in 1989 with “Lily was here” which was a massive hit for you, even in Australia! Tell me a bit about how you got started with music?

CD: My father Hans Dulfer is a saxophone player and he would always practice in the back room in our house. He had this beautiful collection of saxophones and when I was five years old I asked him if I could play one of them.

I started on the soprano because I was so small. I think one of the main things in the beginning for me was that it was such a nice way to spend some quality time together. I remember really bonding over it. He’s a very macho guy but he never had any doubts that I could do it.

So I asked my Dad for some lessons but in the first one we got into an argument. I was like “no Dad, that’s a G” – he brought me up to really stand my ground! After one hour he said “you know what, I’m not going to teach you – I’m going to send you to the brass band”. Back then that was the only way you could take lessons.


Hans Dulfer

The teacher at the brass band made me switch from the soprano to the alto (which I cried about for a day!). It was great fun playing with the band and I learned any theory I have from them, but I learned much more from watching my Dad play with his fellow musicians. He always had such great bands and still does.

So I’m basically self taught apart from the year or two I had with the brass band and what I learned from my father.

NM: It must have been wonderful growing up with your Dad being such a good musician. Did your first musical influences come from the music he was into?

CD: Yeah I think so. The musician that I am really comes from the way we were at home. In our house no music was forbidden. My father loved jazz but he also loved soul and metal, rock, pop. My Mom also had her favourites – Bread, Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that. Anything that had some soul or something special about it was played at our house and nothing was considered “bad or good music”. I’m blessed with a very broad upbringing in that sense.

“I like to be really accessible with my music but then hopefully turn people on to some deeper music.”

My music is a mix of everything I like and I try to share those influences with others. My “secret pleasure” is to bring music to people that they would not normally listen to. When I play for young kids I sometimes put in Charlie Parker licks – they would never notice them but it opens their ears.

I feel my greatest achievement is when I meet people and they say, “I only knew about you from “Lily was here” but then I found Maceo Parker, and David Sanborn and Charlie Parker…”. I like to be really accessible with my music but then hopefully turn people on to some deeper music.

NM: I think that’s brilliant. I can really hear all those different influences in your playing – it’s one of the things I really like about your albums. It’s interesting to me that you often get bundled into the “smooth jazz” genre but you are a very different player.

CD: I think I’ve been really lucky that the smooth jazz people have picked up on my music. I guess it was mainly because of “Lily” and some stuff I did later. My music is so high energy and I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud when they put me in the smooth jazz charts in the USA! I’m always afraid when I get a smooth jazz audience at my shows that they will run away! Luckily nobody ever does.

Candy Dulfer Saxualtiy

I think people just like good music, particularly in the States. It does make me nervous though. My last album “Crazy” which I made with Printz Board from the Black Eyed Peas has all sorts of heavy stuff in it like Dub Step etc, but in the end nobody is ever bothered. The audiences are open to anything.

NM: Don’t you think Candy that the reason they love you is because of your energy onstage, the way you play – it’s fun!

CD: It’s great to hear that because I’ve always tried to copy what I saw when I was a child. I was exposed to more music than most other kids of my age. My parents would take me to concerts every week and the ones I remember most were those that were great quality and amazing musicians but also fun and not pretentious.

It was the same with the music I was listening to later on – Prince, Sheila E, Miles Davis in his later period. All that music made such an impression on me and that’s what I try to channel through in my music.

I really feel that even if you play the highest form of jazz, we are still entertainers. We are here to lift people up. So, I have a low tolerance for people that just come on stage and stand there in their old clothes and be grumpy. I don’t think just the music is enough, you also need to entertain people.

NM: You mentioned before about David Sanborn and Maceo Parker. Were they both influences early on for you?

CD: Yes but when I started out I only listened to tenor players because that’s what my father was listening to – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins. I think in the back of my mind I always thought I would switch to tenor when I was big enough but I never did!

So for a while I was a bit lost because I played like a tenor player on alto and I was a bit embarrassed about that.

Then someone pointed out Earl Bostic to me and they said “No, no, what you’re doing is exactly what he’s doing – keep that style!” So for a while I played really rough with lots of grunting and growling on the sax.

Maceo Parker

Also I remember thinking that there weren’t a lot of girls out there playing sax and I didn’t want to play all feminine and soft like I was expected to. I didn’t like that style, I wanted to be tough and bold.

Eventually I discovered Maceo Parker although I had been listening to him all my life on the James Brown albums. I thought “Hey, that’s a great way to mix that mucho style with the simple playing style I like”.

Then through friends I came across David Sanborn and I remember thinking at first – that’s exactly what I don’t like – high pitched, lots of notes, romantic playing, beautiful ballads. Then I saw him play at the North Sea Jazz festival and I was completely blown away. Now, Sanborn and Maceo along with Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins are my guiding lights. If I don’t know what to do, I go back and study them.

“Where you fail at copying people perfectly,  that’s where your own style begins.”

And now I get to play with David and Maceo which is even crazier. I just came back from playing with David on the smooth jazz cruise. He’s just so fun and so self deprecating it’s amazing. And it’s even more amazing that he likes my music because he must have so many people that have tried to copy him – me included! In the end the funny thing is that I feel where you fail at copying people perfectly, that’s where your own style begins.

The things I used to think were bad in my playing – that I couldn’t hit the high notes like David, or the low notes like Maceo, has actually become my own style. It’s so funny.

NM: So what was the next step for you after school?

CD: My Father had set up this jazz system in Holland and was one of the founders of the Bimhuis, which was the main venue for jazz in Amsterdam. He was playing jazz and free jazz but at one point he saw Miles Davis live with Bob Berg and Mike Stern. He came back from that concert and was really inspired to start playing with some pop musicians.

My Dad had this idea to call the most famous rock band in Holland at the time and asked them to do a little tour with him. But his fellow musicians thought it was blasphemy for him to play with electric bass and he lost a lot of work. Thinking about it now you would laugh but back then it was a big deal.

The Bimhaus

Every Sunday my Mum would cook and all these musicians would come with their families and bring children my age. Then suddenly they wouldn’t come to the house any more.

Luckily we found a whole new fun set of friends in the pop world but for a while it was tough and as a kid, you take that very seriously.

That was around the time I was finishing school and back then the conservatorium would only let you play jazz. I didn’t want that because of what had happened. Also, all the people that always promised me lessons were no longer around. So, I thought if it’s going to be like this, I’ll do it myself!

So the end result was that I didn’t really get a proper theoretical education. Around the time when I really should have been studying hard and learning all the theory myself, was when “Lily was here” came out and I was so busy just playing. I just picked up things on the go and luckily I have great ears.

NM: That’s an amazing story but the brilliant thing is that it pushed you in a direction that led to your success.

CD: Of course. I used to regret it when I saw young players going to these conservatoires, but I think my limitations have pushed me to really develop my ears and that’s something that I like to share with younger players now. In the end I have learned all the stuff I needed to and I’m still learning.

Having good ears has been so important to me. If I can hear it then I can play it. And the great thing about working with really good musicians is that you can always hear where the chords are going. All the years I worked with Van Morrison we never did a rehearsal.

I never got a song before we got onstage but I could hear where he was going with it. He would play a new song and then say to me (dodgy accent) “who gave you a tape? How did you know what to play?” I would just say “I could feel you, I knew where you were going.”

NM: So when you discovered Earl Bostic and then later Maceo and David Sanborn, how did you go about sounding like that? Was it transcribing, listening?

CD: I was transcribing but mostly in my head. I would listen and learn two notes, then go back and learn three notes, then four. I have a guitarist friend who is also self taught and we would do the same thing together. We would blast out a track like David Sanborn and Marcus Miller “Straight to the Heart” for eight hours and probably drive our neighbors crazy. We would just go back and forth till we knew the whole thing. I still do that with Charlie Parker songs and I know nearly all of them.

Straight to the Heart - David Sanborn

I get a lot of people asking me for the transcription of “Lily” but always in the back of my head I’m thinking they should just put on the CD player and work it out themselves! “Lily” is so simple and I think it would develop their ears much more.

NM: You set up your first band when you were really young. How did that come about?

CD: Well my Father really raised me to believe I could do anything I put my mind to. I figured I wasn’t good enough for my Dad’s musician friends to ask me to play, so I decided to start my own band. I’m a Virgo so I always think I can do things better than other people!

I remember playing a gig with my Dad when I was about 12 or 13. The owner of the club said to me “if you ever get your own band, you can come back”. He meant like in five years or so, but I saw it as an invitation. So I called him back the next week and said “well I have five musicians with me, I can come and play!”

We rehearsed a little bit in the sound check and that was it. I asked all these amazing musicians to do the gig with me, people that played with my Dad. That was the start of my band.

Everybody loved it and from that gig I got asked to do another and so on. For years I would run everything like that, do all my own admin and pay all the musicians.

NM: Sounds like you had a good business head from a young age. I’ll bet that came in handy when you did all the other bigger stuff like Prince and Van Morrison.

CD: The most important thing was that I could play the music I was hearing in my head which was a mix of pop, blues, funk and rock. My band was a mix of some of the best players in Holland but from different styles.

“I have always played the music I wanted to.”

I had two really great funk musicians and the guitar player was from one of the best rock bands in Holland. I had some other musicians there who played percussion too. I knew that if I wanted to play that music I would have to put the band together myself.

I think it’s so important to do the things you want to do. You’ll never hear me complain that I had to play the “whatever” circuit for years to get where I wanted to. I played the music I wanted and listened to myself from the first day till now.

If I made mistakes along the way then you can’t blame the record company. It was always my decisions about what I played. Hence the happy face on the stage because I have never had to play music I didn’t like.

NM: What sort of music were you playing in that first band?

CD: Actually we are doing a reunion of that band soon so I need to remember! We did “Pappa was a Rolling Stone” – a really long version. We always opened with a tune by Frank Zappa. We played one of my tunes that I wrote a long time ago called “Funky Stuff”, which I named the band after.

We did “Sex Machine” for about half an hour. I think we played “Hideaway” [David Sanborn]. We also did “Everytime You Go Away” by Paul Young and a version of “Giving it Up for Your Love” which I knew from the Tina Turner version but was originally written by Delbert McClinton.

So it was a big mixture of rock, pop and funk and we would play on for hours. That became our signature. People would come and talk to us after the show and say “did you realise you just played for 2 ½ hours?”.

NM: I wish I had seen that Candy. Sounds fun. Tell me about how you approach practice.

CD: I’ve recently started practicing every day again. I perform just about every day but it’s so nice to be back practicing and re-discovering things. You would think that someone like me would always practice but with the career that I have there simply isn’t enough time. I felt guilty for so many years that someone had given me this wonderful opportunity and I wasn’t honoring it. Then I came around to thinking “what the hell, I’m just working and doing my best!”

But, I am finding more time now to get back into practice. I try to work on long tones but I do get very bored with them. It’s terrible because if kids ask me “what should I practice”, I know I should say long tones because it’s so good for you, but I could count the number of times I played scales on one hand! I never tell them that!

For me, if I need to get my embouchure back in shape then I practice soft to loud to soft again. Aside from that I go back to songs that I’ve had trouble with in the past. I keep a list of them on my iTunes and they are the generally ones where the chord progression isn’t very logical. I’ll work through these and try to get them in my head.

Otherwise, I just put on a Maceo Parker CD and I just start to follow him. The one secret that I’m still trying to work out is how Maceo comes in right at the start of phrases. I guess he’s a proactive player – likes to lead the music, whereas I’m a reactive player and like to listen to the band first, then play.

Even after all these years I’ve not worked out how to come in like Maceo. I’ve even asked him and he can’t tell me the secret! So that’s a challenge that’s always with me in my practice. I’ll get it eventually!

NM: I love Maceo’s playing because it’s so simple but it really works.

CD: The thing is, Maceo is right up there with Miles Davis for me because it’s all about placement. How can they play one note that is so brilliant? And why does it work so much better than someone else who played 600 notes in the same 4 bars? I could talk about Maceo for hours. I know him really well now and he’s a great friend but if you ask him how he does it, he’s so modest that he can’t really describe it.

Before every concert he does, he will find somewhere quiet and practice for 2 hours. I’ve asked him “why do you do this, you already sound brilliant?” and he’s like “ no, no. If I don’t do this I’ll sound awful!”

That’s his routine. And that’s after the hour of fitness he does every day. So I feel very inadequate and lazy around him!

NM: Are you working on a new album project?

CD: Yes, but with all my touring it’s been taking a while to complete. I love so much Electronic Dance Music (EDM) and House music so I’ve asked all my favourite people from these styles to produce a track for me. It’s a long process but I really love going around to all these different studios and making music with them. It’s a real joy. We have about 12 tracks now but there’s still some work to do. Hopefully next summer we will bring it out.

Candy’s gear

Alto: Free Winds sax from Amsterdam Winds
I used my Selmer Mark VI for years but love the new Free Winds horn. It sings like the selmer and it’s really a great instrument.

Mouthpiece: I’m playing a custom made mouthpiece from a shop called Saxpoint here in Holland. We will hopefully be making them commercially soon. It’s a big mouthpiece, about a size 9 and I’m using 2 ½ reeds.

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