Desafinado (meaning “slightly out of tune”) is one of Tom Jobim’s most famous pieces. It’s his musical answer to critics who couldn’t really get used to the sound of bossa nova.

In this famous recording by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, the piece is played in F major, as is most common in jazz today. Joao Gilberto liked to play the piece in D major, which allows for some nice open string voicing. Listen to his live version and follow the chords:

Joao Gilberto - His Chords

Right at the beginning you will find a typical Joao Gilberto voicing: the DMaj7 chord with F# (i.e. the third of the chord) in the bass. From there, a skilful voice leading through the harmonies of Desafinado begins.

For example, observe the hidden melody line within the first three chords (DMaj7 – E7 – Em7): The note A (the fifth of DMaj7) is lowered a semitone to G# (the third of E7) and again lowered a semitone and thus becomes the minor third of E minor7.

Voice Leading in Desafinado

These Guide Tone Lines give the harmonic progression structure and it is worthwhile to work on them in your guitar playing. As in this example, it is often a question of middle voices that develop a life of their own between the bass and melody voices.

The following chords are typical of the bossa nova style: the diminished F°7(b13) functions as a chromatic connecting chord to the II-V connection to E minor (F#m7b5 is the second, B7b9 the fifth chord of the E- minor scale).

The second half of the first part begins as indicated on an E minor 7th chord (in this case a nice voicing with the option note F#, i.e. the ninth). Now comes an unusual compositional trick: the harmonies are directed to B flat major via the intermediate dominant F#7. One would normally expect the parallel minor chord of B flat minor here, but Tom Jobim manages to incorporate this unusual key change almost effortlessly. Two more intermediate dominants follow: B7(b9) leads to E7(9), the double dominant.

Before it goes into the repetition, the composer has reserved a nice chord. At first glance, the EbMaj7 chord is unusual in the key of D major. However, it is a usual harmonic suspension in jazz to insert the chord of the diminished second degree (also as a major7 chord) before the return to the tonic.

There follows a repetition of the first part and then a long second part in which there are two more key changes, many secondary dominants and other borrowed chords to discover.

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