Piano players rarely play together, so the saying goes. But there are exceptions. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea took a legendary duo tour together in 1978, which then became a legendary album. The collaboration was noteworthy in part because the two pianist-composers were at the height of their popularity as crossover jazz-rock fusion stars, and this was a strictly acoustic set.
Hancock and Corea are on their first major tour as a duo since ’78, and their stop at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston on Sunday night was sold out. This time, their two grand pianos were supplemented by electric keyboards. But there were no jazz-funk freakouts. In fact, the electric noodling both players did was some of the most sedate, and least interesting, music of the night — washes of sound, a bit of rhythm, and sampled impersonations of gamelan and cymbals.
Fortunately, there was other, substantive music to be had. In fact, when Hancock began the roughly 85-minute set with what sounded like sprightly improvisation on tone rows, it looked like it was going to be a very substantive evening indeed. Hancock made it clear that the two were taking a leap of faith, trusting to spontaneity: “We don’t know what we’re doing.” This gave us moments of exciting high-wire interaction, the two men improvising overlapping chords and lines and somehow staying out of each other’s way.
The free-form explorations were spelled by plenty of love-fest charm, the musicians paying tribute to each other and to the audience. It was Hancock’s 75th birthday, and the Chelsea-born Corea, himself 73, led the audience in “Happy Birthday” before breaking into Hancock’s boogaloo hit “Watermelon Man.” Corea cued another Hancock standard, “Maiden Voyage,” for one of the duo’s most far-reaching excursions. The hometown hero also gave a shout-out to his graduating class, Chelsea High ’59, and got a shout back. For an encore, he had the audience singing two chords (six parts!) as a basis for his own Return to Forever hit, “Spain,” with its introduction adapted from Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.”
There were onstage hugs, and more shout-outs: to Boston drummers (Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Bobby Ward, Alan Dawson) and clubs of yore (the Stables, Storyville, Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall). But a bit less banter and a bit more music would have been nice. Even an electric jazz-funk freakout.