Almost forty years ago two renowned jazz pianists, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, put their other projects on hold and went on tour together. By then they were in mid-career, approaching their forties. They had started out learning the classics–Corea in Chelsea (Massachusetts), Hancock in Chicago–had become fascinated with modern jazz, and were playing professionally before they were twenty. Both excelled early as players and composers; both spent only a few years apprenticing as sidemen and then moved on to lead their own groups. Although their music has always sounded unique, they have shared a restless dissatisfaction with generic boundaries that has taken them from abstract explorations of the avant-garde to the most accessible forms of crossover popular jazz and various forms of music outside of jazz. They also have a common fascination with electronic instruments. Over the years Corea and Hancock have organized many different groups and examined a bewildering variety of musical directions. But the last time they went on tour as a duo they turned to the acoustic piano and to lengthy virtuosic improvisations on the classics, from their own most famous compositions, such as Corea’s “Fiesta” and Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” to pieces from Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Judging by early reviews, their new tour is proceeding in a similar manner.

The artistic catalyst for both pianists was their apprenticeship with the visionary trumpet player Miles Davis. Miles had a penchant for creating combos made up of carefully selected, promising, but relatively unseasoned musicians and using them to explore an equally carefully chosen repertoire until it was exhausted and it was time to move on to new territory. In 1955 he formed his first successful quintet; after various changes things really moved in a new direction when in 1963 he hired the nineteen-year-old drummer Tony Williams and twenty-two-year-old Herbie Hancock to anchor a new quintet. This group was in constant musical flux, and by 1968, when Hancock left and went out on his own, it was pioneering the use of electronic instruments and rock rhythms. He was replaced by none other than Chick Corea. The music then became even more abstract and rhythmically varied, with the rock influences growing. When Miles was in the studio making a series of albums that are now known as the Silent Way and Bitches Brew sessions, Hancock was back occasionally, and the two pianists performed together on electric keyboards.

By the early 1970s both pianists were out on their own; Corea moved in avant-garde directions but soon returned to the fusion with rock and pop he had explored with Davis, forming one of his first “electric” bands, Return to Forever. Hancock likewise performed more radical music and then created more popular groups with rock and R&B overtones. These directions, some soaring, some less than stellar, would gain them both exposure far beyond the jazz audience, access to more lucrative concert settings, and popular awards such as the Grammy, which rarely go to exploratory music. And yet from time to time both returned effectively to their acoustic jazz roots. They’ll do so again when the University Musical Society brings them to Hill Auditorium on April 16 as part of their just-launched world tour.