It Hugs You Like It Should: “First Christmas Loving You” by John Korbel

What are the ingredients to an instant classic, especially in a subgenre with so much existing material like Christmas jazz?

A sultry pace, heavy on the brushes, lyrics that make it seem like the song was written only for the listener, and vocals that are comfortable, warm and evoke time together by the fireplace. Who can do this? John Korbel. The Orlando, Florida-based vocalist has a crooner’s vibe with a natural and confident presentation. Smart lyrics, a foray into a blue-eyed soul kind of feel, his discography grows with this Christmas song. Pairs well with another great holiday song of his, “December 10th,” a beautiful tribute to his mother, which is as much of a love song as any.

“First Christmas Loving You” can easily be a new holiday favorite, different from the rest but fitting right in with what you need for the season.

Where did you receive your music education?

My formal music education is fairly limited. I had my first music lessons on clarinet when I was about 12 years old and had some music and chorus classes in high school. I was also fortunate to have an older brother that was classically trained and coached me a bit as a vocalist.

What was the biggest takeaway; and was there anything you disagreed with and did not follow/use in your music career?

As a vocalist, I learned the importance of breathing and breath control. The sad part is that I do not always put what I learned into practice very well, it’s a shortcoming. As far as my songwriting goes, I feel like my lack of theory training is really an asset. The biggest compliment I ever received as a songwriter was when a very accomplished pianist that I was working with looked up from playing one of my songs and exclaimed, “This shouldn’t work, but it does.” 

Why did you decide to get into jazz?

I think that I always preferred more sophisticated-sounding music. Whether it was pop, rock, R&B or country, I have always gravitated to songs with the widest musical vocabulary. I think jazz epitomizes the idea of musical vocabulary. I do not consider myself a jazz musician but as a songwriter. The thrill of having one of my songs arranged and interpreted by great musicians is what keeps me going.

How do you take care of your voice?

 I could do a much better job of that. I know the best practices but I don’t always follow them. Singing is an athletic pursuit. You have to train to build up stamina, and then get adequate rest and recovery. 

Where are you based and what is the scene there?

I have been living in Orlando for a long time now. There is a pretty active jazz scene here and a few terrific venues. There are some amazing musicians here who used to work at the theme parks and other attractions. I have been very fortunate to be able to bring some of them together for my recording projects.

Why are Christmas and jazz such a great pair?

I think it is the result of a long tradition of great song stylists focusing on doing Christmas albums. Back in the day, it was kind of obligatory for top vocalists to do a Christmas record for commercial reasons. Those tracks still get played year after year. I think for most people it’s the only jazz-influenced music they ever listen to.

Why did you decide to do this EP?

I wrote “First Christmas Loving You” was an attempt to emulate the great Christmas records that I grew up listening to, like the ones by Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, and so many others. I will be releasing it as a single for the holiday season. The recording sessions for it went so well that I decided to keep the session musicians together and continue working on other material that I hope to release in 2023.

When you compose, do you start with a melody, a chord structure, or other?

More often than not, I begin with a lyric idea, and then find the music hidden inside the words. But there are examples of songs that I wrote starting with a chord progression first, and I sometimes think that they are better for it. It’s a mysterious process. Songs never seem to come to me the same way twice.

Who are the instrumentalists on “First Christmas Loving You”?

I am so glad that you asked about this because I am so proud of the studio group that we assembled. I had done a number of live dates with keyboardist Mark Falchook, and when I started to plan for the Christmas song, I knew that I wanted Mark to produce and arrange the track. I had also previously worked with drummer Ezra Henry and bassist Marco Bojorquez, so they were also a perfect fit. We rounded things out by adding Steve Luciano on guitar. The woodwinds and sax solo were recorded in Nashville by Chris West. Chris had worked with me on both my Earthlight and Miss the Mystery EPs.

What did you want to evoke with the lyrics?

The lyrics were inspired by a couple of friends that had just started seeing each other last year and were about to be together for their first Christmas. I remembered what a great feeling that was in the relationships that I’ve had and realized that it was a pretty universal romantic idea that had not been addressed very often in Christmas songs. The first Christmas together as a couple is a time when people discover new things about each other and create memories that stay with them throughout their lives.

Who are your musical influences?

Too many to list, but I think Al Jarreau, Nat King Cole, Sting, and Michael Franks deserve honorable mentions. I am also a huge fan of Kurt Elling.

What would you say to your younger self about the music business; what do you wish you knew then that you know now?

Have a plan. I really never had one.

 Favorite past collabs?

I was the lead singer with a band in Philadelphia called Jellyroll. It was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.

Other comments?

May everyone find love and peace this holiday season!

For more information, visit https://johnkorbel.com/home.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

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