Chick Corea is nothing if not adaptable.
Though his first career breakthroughs came on the acoustic piano, the Chelsea native recalls the night in the late 1960s when he showed up onstage, as part of Miles Davis’s band, and the leader surprised him with instructions to play the electric piano instead — something verboten among jazz traditionalists.
“I remember walking up onstage for the first set, with Miles, and I started heading toward the acoustic piano and he pointed over to this [other] instrument that was sitting onstage and he said, ‘Play that.’ That was it,” Corea recalls, on the telephone from Albany, where he is in between dates on his current tour. “I looked at this thing — I didn’t even know how to turn it on. I hated it at first.” Some points are fuzzy, but Corea believes this happened at the old Jazz Workshop, on Boylston Street.
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He quickly honed his technique on the Fender Rhodes, adding color to Davis’s ferocious live sound and playing on classic albums like “Bitches Brew.” Soon after, he was on the front lines of the jazz/rock fusion movement with his band Return to Forever.
An omnivorous investigator of musical possibilities, he’s explored solo piano, piano duets with Herbie Hancock, and composed for string quartet.
But one of his most enduring projects came about by accident. When he and vibraphonist Gary Burton played solo sets at a Munich jazz festival in 1972, they were the only two musicians who agreed to partake in an all-star jam. They leaned on their improvisational instincts for an impromptu set of duo music, and you could say it went well. They’ve played together every year since, cutting seven albums and earning four Grammy Awards for their work as a pair.
“When we play it’s like we can read each other’s minds to a great extent, and that tends to make it exciting. Although I have rapport with a number of other players as well, there’s something about the connection with Chick that just seems to be on a scale all its own. And that’s something I think also keeps us coming back,” says Burton, on the phone from his Florida home.
Their latest studio effort, “Hot House,” was released last month. The duo plays Symphony Hall on Sunday, joined for several numbers by the up-and-coming Harlem String Quartet.
Raised in Indiana, Burton came to Boston at age 17 as a wide-eyed Berklee College of Music student. The titans of the flourishing jazz scene made a big impression. He was a regular at the Stable, where big band leader Herb Pomeroy held court, and made regular visits to other legendary clubs, like Storyville in Copley Square and Connolly’s in Roxbury.
Corea cut his teeth in the same scene. His father, Armando, was a trumpeter and band leader around town, and by the age of 15 or 16 the young Corea played alongside his father at some less glamorous gigs, like weddings and bar mitzvahs.
He played in one jazz combo that rehearsed at MIT, and had an early thrill when he led a trio date opening for Pomeroy at the Stable. Another highlight, while still in high school, was playing a week of gigs at Connolly’s with saxophonist Sonny Stitt and Bobby Ward, who he describes as “one of the great Boston drummers.”
Burton says this shared background is the root of the duo’s musical telepathy.
“I can sum it up in one word: Boston,” he says. “Chick grew up in Boston and in a way so did I, musically speaking. We both played with a lot of the same local musicians and we learned from them. We share a lot of experience and perspective, but that Boston connection is a big one.”
Corea moved to New York after high school, studying at Columbia University and the Juilliard School for a few months before turning to professional work full time. The city of Chelsea named a street after him in 2001. Burton returned to Berklee as a professor in 1971 and stayed on for over 30 years, eventually becoming the school’s dean and executive vice president. He’s also had a fruitful partnership with guitarist Pat Metheny, and like Corea has amassed a prodigious musical output.
The spirit of the old days informs the new album. Most of their past work together centered on the music of Corea, who is not only on the short list of greatest jazz pianists but a prolific composer as well. For “Hot House,” they looked to the work of artists who influenced them early on: Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, the team of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes.
The title track is a Tadd Dameron tune popularized by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “That was a jam session favorite back in the ’50s and ’60s,” recalls Corea, who arranged all the songs for duet.
“Once you get on a stage in front of a live audience,” he adds, “it doesn’t matter if you’re playing a song that was written 5,000 years ago or you’re just making it up on the spot. The actual value and beauty of the moment is just the communication of the music.”