The sheer audacity of Hancock's work is apparent in the forthcoming boxed set, "Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988," to be released on Nov. 11. Featuring 28 albums and 3 double albums (8 never before issued in the U.S.), the box includes work from his Mwandishi band, which explored African idioms; his Head Hunters unit, with its currents of soul, funk and R&B; the V.S.O.P. quintet, which returned to certain jazz concepts; plus solo music, rock-driven fare and other eclectic music.
The very fact that Hancock released 31 albums in 16 years, four of them in 1977 alone – and during that time won an Academy Award for original score to the classic film "'Round Midnight" – tells you something about the tempo of his work.
Dipping into the recordings as the boxed set was being produced, "My reaction was: 'Damn, I sure did a lot of different kinds of stuff,'" he says.
"Because one of my characteristics is that I'm curious, and I like the idea of wondering what would happen if you put this with that, or what does this do?" says Hancock.
"It's like bugs in a computer program. I'm so used to that," adds Hancock, who majored in electrical engineering at Grinnell College before, inevitably, switching to music.
"Some people get freaked out. They don't even want to try a beta version of a program or even when a program is new. They want to try version two or three.
"I want it before it comes out."
That risk-everything approach can yield important results, as in Hancock's aforementioned discography, but less successful work, as well. When Hancock played a rare solo show two years ago at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, in Naperville, he shared the stage with a Fazioli grand piano and a small mountain of electronic equipment.
The attempt to riff alongside the latest in high-tech gadgetry ultimately proved unsatisfying, yet you had to admire Hancock's courage in attempting it. Few artists of his stature, at his point in life, would take that kind of chance.
Which leads to next week's performance at Symphony Center.Though Hancock recently performed in South America with tabla virtuoso Hussain (who was stepping in for guitarist Lionel Loueke), this concert will mark the first time the full quartet will perform with Hussain, says the pianist. It's also the only time these five musicians will appear together in its U.S. tour.
As always, Hancock is searching for new sounds, ideas and possibilities.
Not that his foray into world music is anything new for him: In the 1980s, he partnered with the Gambian griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso.
"What that has evolved to, especially today, is my realization that global collaboration can have tremendous repercussions in anything – not just music, not just the arts, but in architecture, in craftsmanship, so many areas," says Hancock, who sees exchange of information via various apps on the Internet as the new norm.
"It's really gone beyond taking root – it's flowering. It's becoming the default."
And that's precisely the wide-open environment in which Hancock can flourish.
The Herbie Hancock Quartet with Zakir Hussain plays at 8 p.m. Oct. 11 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $38-$60; 312-294-3000 or cso.org.