Billy Joel got a lot of media attention for his recent concert tour of the Soviet Union, touted (mistakenly) as the first such tour by an American since the Geneva Cultural Agreement signed by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev. In fact, that distinction belongs to American jazz saxophonist Paul Winter.

Winter, who had first wanted to play in the Soviet Union 25 years ago, during the height of the Cold War, got the idea again in the early 80s while recording at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “There I was,” explains Winter, “at the bottom of the canyon, wondering where the Soviet people go for beauty in nature–do they have Yosemites, Yellowstones, places like that. Do they love the earth as we do? I thought, if they do, then maybe nature could be a common ground for peace.”

In addition to having recorded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Winter has recorded outdoors playing to wolves and on rafts while serenading gray whales.

Winter took his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1984 to explore wilderness areas there, which led him to Siberia’s Lake Baikal. “One of the world’s great natural wonders–the largest and deepest freshwater lake on earth, contaning the only freshwater seals in the world,” Winter says, “it is the Soviet Union’s Grand Canyon and a place of indescribable beauty.”

During subsequent trips to the Soviet Union Winter made friends interested in his work; before long he was getting publicity there, one article dubbing his music “ecological jazz, a label he prefers to “new-age jazz.” “Literature is so powerful over there,” says Winter, “several million people read this one article. I was then invited to do TV interviews, and before long our music was getting known there, and Melodiya licensed an album for release.” Finally Winter and his ensemble, the Paul Winter Consort, which consists of five other musicians playing keyboards, cello, and Afro-Brazilian percussion instruments, were invited to tour.

When the tour ended, in September 1986, the Paul Winter Consort and the Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers, an underground group of ten folksingers, were booked together in a concert at Moscow University. The singers had spent over 15 years under the guidance of ethnomusicologist Pokrovsky traveling through Russian villages collecting folk songs from old villagers, and Winter was fascinated by them. “This is earth music,” he says, “music of people whose lives are rooted in the earth. It’s music born of ritual, of the rounds of the life cycles. It celebrates the spring, the solstices, the harvest, making love all night. It’s music wedded to life and isn’t a separate thing you do on a Friday night for entertainment. There is a rhythmic power to it, strange yet fascinating harmonies–very different from anything Western; an unbridled kind of singing, usually improvisation, and an invitation for everyone to join in. It’s not passive or exclusive music; it’s not music for virtuosi or connoisseurs. It’s music for everyone.”

At the end of the concert the two groups played together on an ancient Russian village song and immediately “fell in love with each other and found an instant bond. Even though we could only communicate in ‘Tarzan English,’ we communicated deeply and with ease musically. We were so compatible and we were both so inspired, that we knew we should do something together.”

The result, Earthbeat, is the first album of original music composed and recorded by American and Russian musicians, with parts recorded in both countries. Winter says, “People wonder how American jazz and Russian folk music could possibly fit together, but at least in this case, one totally complements the other, really a yin-yang situation. I love contrast, and we really weren’t trying to melt into one another, we were trying to interweave in an organic way. We didn’t overlay what we did, but created music that grew out of their music. We improvised for weeks and weeks until new harmonies emerged and felt companion to their music. We played our instruments in all kinds of combinations until things really felt good.”

The Earthbeat tour, a live collaboration of the Paul Winter Consort and the Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers, will make its way into the Chicago area this week at the Ravinia Festival. Winter describes the reactions of audiences thus far as “a fervent life-affirming celebration. People are falling in love with these young Russian singers, they’re crying one minute, dancing in the aisles the next. It’s wonderful. This music has a universal dimension that all people can resonate with. There’s a tremendous surge of energy when Russians and Americans get together. It’s almost as if one is the missing piece to the other. It’s something that goes way beyond the idea of embracing people from another culture with goodwill and peace.

“They, for example, have a tremendous humility about life, and a heartfulness in the face of very difficult circumstances. Since we’re generally pretty spoiled here, that’s an exchange that would benefit us greatly. We, on the other hand, have an expansiveness and an energy from our unique American experience, a sense of ‘go for it’ that could substantially benefit them. We can help to wake one another up. It’s a mirror that we hold up to one another because we have so many similarities–yet so many contrasts, it’s fascinating. Perhaps music is a start.”

The two groups are appearing at 8 PM, Wednesday, August 10, at Ravinia, Green Bay and Lake Cook roads in Highland Park. Tickets are $16 and $14 in the pavilion, and $6 for the lawn. For more information call 728-4642.