The bridge from the tune “Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994) has long been a source of discussion concerning the workings of the harmony. I have often wondered myself about how it works and decided to take a crack at an explanation. I and others have probably played this tune thousands of times throughout the years and managed to do a decent solo as the scale choices are clear enough, but how do these chords function harmonically? What is their relationship to the home key? They seem at first to be a rather random harmonic progression but as you will see this is not the case.
Melodically it is clear that we have four four measure phrases. The first three phrases are simply transposed restatements (sequential repetitions) of the material in the first four measures:
1) Measures 1-4 (F# Major)
2) Measures 5-8 (E Major)
3) Measures 9-12 (F Major)
The last four bars are a turnaround based on a second two bar melodic sequence.
So, no problem so far melodically. What makes this section so compelling is the harmony. Here is what I think is going on:
Jobim simply decides to move up one half-step to begin the bridge (F major to F# major).
He then, as is fairly typical of many tunes, converts the tonic (F#Maj7) to minor (F#m7) creating what is now a functional ii chord as is confirmed by the move to the V (B7). I did take the liberty of introducing the F#m7 early as shown with parentheses to make the harmony clearer. This was a missing part of the puzzle for me and may be in the original since we all know the jazz changes we are accustomed to can sometimes be different.
This now moves the key to E major and is the start of a common variation of the turnaround progression:
F#m7 (ii) Am7 (iv) D7 (bVII) in which two “borrowed chords” (iv and bVII) are utilized. These are referred to as “borrowed” because they are borrowed from the parallel minor key of E minor in this case. These are two of the most commonly found altered chords and occur in many tunes.
Jobim could have completed the turnaround as follows:
F#m7 (ii) Am7 (iv) D7 (bVII) G#m7 (iii) C#7 (V/ii) F#m7 (ii) B7 (V) EMaj7 (I)
But, he needed to get back to the home key of F major and in order to do that he cut short the turnaround at the point of the D7 chord, changing its function from a bVII to a true dominant function (in this case a secondary dominant, V/ii) in F major to begin the completed turnaround progression he had earlier cut short:
Gm7 (ii) Bbm7 (iv) Eb7 (bVII) Am7 (iii) D7 (V/ii) Gm7 (ii) C7 (V)
This of course brings us back to the home key and the restatement of the “A” section.
Please see the pdf below as this should help clarify things. I would be very interested to know if anyone has the original score to see exactly how Jobim wrote this bridge. The chords in parentheses may or may not be in the original. This shouldn’t change my analysis in any way as it is quite common for harmonies to be present through implication only.